Tony Robbins may be best known for his popular personal development seminars and books—over the last three decades, he’s written five best-sellers and reached an estimated 50 million people through his audio, video and live programs. But the 2008 financial crisis prompted Robbins, whose net worth is estimated at nearly half a billion dollars, to turn his focus to helping other people build theirs.
“I realized I had unique access to some of the smartest financial people in the world,” says Robbins. “And I thought, what if I could interview them, take the information and simplify it to help anyone—no matter where they are now—get to where they want to be?”
Robbins spent years interviewing more than 50 of the world’s top investors, asking for insights into their successful strategies, and turned it into a 688-page book, “Money: Master the Game,” which became a New York Times #1 best-seller last year. It was released in paperback this week with an additional chapter that features financial tips from Peter Mallouk, whose wealth management firm, Creative Planning, Robbins recently joined as chief of investor psychology. (He is giving away free copies of the paperback book at www.moneymasterthegame.com.)
Robbins, who has also just launched a financially-focused podcast, spoke with us about some of the surprising lessons he learned doing research for his book, and the mistakes he’s made on his own financial journey.
You talked to some of the world’s most successful investors, from Warren Buffett to Steve Forbes. What was the biggest surprise or discovery you made during those interviews?
There were a lot, actually. I interviewed such diverse people. On the one side, you have John Templeton, the billionaire. He passed away in 2008, but I had interviewed him over the years. His view was: Make all your money during times of maximum pessimism. In other words, buy when everyone else is selling. Then you have Ray Dalio [founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, which manages about $154 billion], who has a completely different strategy. He has set up an “all-weather” asset allocation strategy, which he shares for the first time in my book.
Did they agree on anything?
There are some things all of them have in common. One that seems boring, but blew my mind, is that you’d think the best investors in the world would be big risk takers. But they are all obsessed with not losing money. They know that, for example, if you lose 50 percent of your money, it takes an increase of 100 percent to get back to where you were.
They’re also all obsessed with asymmetrical risk reward. That means instead of taking huge risks to get huge rewards that can also have huge losses, they ask: What’s the least amount of risk I can take to get the most reward?
Third, they’re all tax-efficiently oriented. In financial markets, you hear about returns. But it’s really about what you get to keep after tax. I always say, tell me the net-net number after taxes. You can cut the time it takes to accumulate money in half if you are tax efficient.
The fourth is diversification, which is the key to avoiding losses. That way you can win even when the markets are doing poorly.
Can you expand on that?
Stocks, bonds, real estate… In order to avoid losses, you have to diversify across different asset classes and even within them—if you have money in real estate, for example, don’t do just one building. If you’re buying stocks, don’t just buy Apple because it sounds good.
And keep in mind if you have 50-50 bonds and stocks, that’s balanced dollars but not balanced risk because stocks are more volatile than bonds.
What’s the biggest money mistake you’ve made?
I made so many mistakes, financially. One was when I was about 25 and living in Marina Del Rey, Calif. I was in a wealthy area one day and met a woman who was driving a Rolls Royce. She said she and her husband owned a penny stock investment firm. So I asked her if she had any investing tips. I took her advice and put my money in those stocks. And I lost it all.
You didn’t diversify! What’s the best investment you’ve made?
The investment in myself—and I don’t say that lightly. Even Warren Buffett says that the greatest investment you can make is to improve your own skill sets because you are the one asset that will grow geometrically if you grow personally.
What’s the first investment you ever made? Was it the penny stocks?
No, I actually made my first investment in real estate. I was in California, and people were making all this money in real estate. I bought my first triplex at 18. The interest rate [on the mortgage] was 18 percent. And I was trying to make money on that! On top of that, the management company did a poor job of maintaining [the property], and a railing broke and someone broke a leg and sued.
So between that and the experience with penny stocks, I can relate to any millennial who says, I don’t want to invest. It’s too dangerous.
How do you counter that?
If you don’t invest, you will lose. You need to be an investor. You need to be an owner. The most important thing is to get into the game. The second is that you have to understand the rules before you do. That’s why I wrote the book.
How do you start?
Everyone says, I don’t have 15 or 20 percent to save [or invest]. But you don’t need to start with 20 percent. Save for tomorrow—set aside 3 percent now, and then commit to saving the first 3 percent of any raise you get. Within a few years, you’ll be at 10, 15 and then 20 percent. And you’ll be on track to be totally financially free. Time is on your side if you’re just starting out because of compounding—but you have to start.
Do you have specific advice for new investors?
The biggest thing is find a fiduciary if you’re getting advice. You need someone on your side. You’re not going to be a professional investor. So you need someone who is legally bound to look out for you and your best interests. [Note: Registered advisors, who must adhere to the so-called fiduciary standard, are required by law to put clients’ interests ahead of their own, whereas broker-dealers and some advisors are only required to offer “suitable” advice.]
You’ve also spoken out about excessive fees.
There are people living next door to each other who are paying thousands of dollars more or less for essentially the same product [like a 401(k) or mutual fund] because there’s not much transparency about fees. When you overpay in fees, it can be the equivalent of years of retirement earnings lost. [Note: Robbins is a partner and board member of America’s Best 401(k), which offers a fee-checker tool similar to services like FeeX and Brightscope—all of which allow you to check fees in your fund or plan for free.]
What money lessons did you learn growing up, and how did they inform your approach?
I think my childhood produced tremendous drive. When I was 11, we had no money for a Thanksgiving dinner. And one day, a man—a stranger—showed up at our door with this huge uncooked turkey and big bags of food. My father was angry, but the man was insistent that we take it.
It changed my life. What it meant to me was that strangers care. And I promised that one day I would give back. I’ve helped to provide 42 million meals to people in my lifetime so far, and I want to help feed a billion. All of that grew out of that one experience.
How were your parents with money?
My mother was married four times, but we were always broke. There were always fights over money. I decided early on: I am going to master money. I realize, looking back, that their psychology was really the problem.
What role do you think psychology plays in being financially successful?
You hear that money changes people, but money doesn’t change you. It makes you more of who you are. It’s a magnifier.
So how does your mindset influence the financial choices you make?
Most people earn what they have to earn, and not a dime more. Most people don’t achieve their goals. People who do achieve their goals—for them, they’re not goals, they’re musts.
One day, I said, this is it: I am going to earn enough money so I can not only do what I want, but take care of anyone I want to—whether it’s family or friends. When you commit to someone else, you can’t walk away.
How does that differ, in terms of motivation, from just wanting to take care of yourself?
I’ll tell you a story. A few weeks ago, I heard about a group of nuns in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. They had been feeding the homeless, and now they were being evicted, being put out onto the streets with the same people they were feeding. I got on a plane and met them and the owner, and I negotiated a deal and gave [the owner] money and said let them stay for a year, then I will help them find another place.
I was so inspired by them; they were so dedicated. So I bought them a soup kitchen. I am able to do something like that at this stage in my life. That is a privilege.
This is an investment that will live on. It’s a permanent force of impact. That is very different than, I have to be able to pay my bills. If you are trying to take care of something that is bigger than yourself, you are going to have a different level of insight, motivation and solutions.