Fame is great. Fame can make you a household name. Fame can make you powerful. Most importantly, fame can make you very rich. But the problem with fame is that it’s fleeting. One day the world loves you, but by the next day people have already moved on to something else. Then you’re suddenly stuck with a lot of savings and a very limited income.
Converting fifteen minutes of fame into a comfortable nest egg requires patience, sacrifice and some thoughtful budgeting, and these are not skills that many celebrities possess. Far too often, the world’s biggest stars get caught up in their lavish lifestyles and end up spending and spending long after the well has dried up. Some stars, like Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum, manage to get it together and pay down their debt before they die. Many more, however, ended up dying penniless. Here are five famous people who lost it all after the spotlights went dark.
1) Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was the mad scientist’s mad scientist. He mused about death rays, he engaged in frequent spats with rival Thomas Edison, and in his spare time he came up with the alternating current system, modern radar and the Tesla Coil.
Unfortunately, Tesla was more concerned with promoting his ideals than he was with making money. He even rejected a contract with Westinghouse that would have made him the world’s first billionaire. So after 800 patents and numerous awards, he was kicked out of his apartment for not paying rent and was forced to take up residence in the New Yorker hotel. There, he spent his days growing senile and commiserating with a white pigeon until he died in poverty in 1943.
2) Judy Garland. Judy Garland was one of the most renowned actresses to ever grace the silver screen. She played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” she played Jenny in “I Could Go on Singing” and she played Marilyn in “Till the Clouds Roll By.” She was Liza Minnelli’s mother and a universally respected gay icon. And she died on a toilet, deeply in debt.
As a victim of Hollywood’s rampant drug culture at the time, Garland was deeply addicted to barbiturates. This hindered her ability to get work and upped her cost of living considerably. When the directors stopped calling, her debt took off, reaching $4 million by the end of her celebrated life. It probably would have been higher but for an accidental overdose in the bathroom at age 47.
3) Gary Coleman. As the diminutive star of “Diff’rent Strokes,” Gary Coleman became a worldwide sensation with his signature catchphrase “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?” He was a staple of 80′s pop culture and one of the most recognizable people in Hollywood.
After “Diff’rent Strokes” went off the air in 1986, though, Coleman couldn’t keep his life in order. He sued his parents for grossly mismanaging the money he had earned from the show, which wasn’t much. Eventually he moved to Utah to escape the Hollywood lifestyle. He had multiple run-ins with the law, filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and owed his creditors for the rest of his life. In 2010, $72,000 in debt, he died from a fall. He had less than $20,000 in assets.
4) Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States, one of our country’s founding fathers and a leader of the Enlightenment. He was also terrible with his personal finances.
Like most plantation owners at the time, Jefferson took out a ton of loans from British creditors to keep his operation running. Unfortunately, the crops didn’t produce the way they were supposed to. On top of that, Jefferson also cosigned for a $20,000 loan for a friend who never paid any of it back. When he died in 1826, the Father of the Declaration of Independence had so much debt that all of his land was divvied up and auctioned off along with his famous manor Monticello.
If there’s anything to be learned from these tragic tales of celebrity spending, it’s that living solely “in the now” can be dangerous. Had these famous figures practiced a little financial planning when they were making their money (or simply giving everything away, in Tesla’s case), they would have developed the saving habits required to maintain a happy lifestyle. So if you’re ever “discovered” while playing guitar in an alley or while drinking coffee and looking beautiful in a Starbucks, come up with a solid spending plan before you deposit that million-dollar check into your bank account. If you don’t, your can expect a few extra subsections on your Wikipedia page.