Alton Brown Learned a Harsh Lesson About Money When He Was 5—and It Still Haunts Him
It was his first big purchase. And it broke his heart.
Alton Brown’s been holding a money grudge for more than 50 years.
Long before he became one of the most recognizable faces in the culinary world, he was a five-year-old kid slowly socking away quarters to buy a really cool Star Trek toy. But what happened afterwards haunts him to this day and changed his relationship with money forever.
“I was crushed,” he says. “Until that moment, I had 16 weeks of believing in magic.”
Somehow, he managed to get over his heartbreak and constructed an exceptionally busy career. After the success of his “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science” tour, he’s plotting a holiday show to take place in the next year, and new episodes of Good Eats, under the title Return of the Eats, is slated for 2019. And if that’s not enough, he’s still hosting Iron Chef America, and delights 4.5 million Twitter followers with scribbled Post-Its—his preferred method of @-ing people.
Brown, 56, talked to MONEY about that first big (and heart-breaking) purchase, being a “money hoarder,” and his radical savings philosophies.
Star Trek Dreams
Back in the ‘60s, almost every boy had a toy gun of some type. I didn’t want a gun that looked like you could shoot a squirrel or something, but when I was five years old, I was very into Star Trek. This company called Remco—those bastards, I doubt they exist anymore—marketed a device called the “Star Trek Astro-Buzz-Ray Gun.”
The box very clearly displays Mr. Spock from Star Trek holding a device emitting a multi-colored beam and you immediately believe, ‘Oh my god, this thing shoots beams, visible beams of colored light.’ I had to have it, but my mom said, ‘No, it’s a toy gun, I’m not going to buy it for you.’ Even though it doesn’t look like a gun at all.
I received a quarter a week allowance. The toy was four dollars. This not only meant I was saving for 16 weeks, which to a child that age was from here to eternity, but that I must eschew all other purchases. If I bought a penny candy off the bread truck that drove through our neighborhood, I would not have the money. This wasn’t just saving. It was fasting on all other things.
After saving for 16 weeks, I finally bought the toy. I remember pulling the trigger and…there were no rainbow beams. Unicorns didn’t jump out. I went into a closet, closed the door, and shot it—all it did was make these three little pale lights on the wall, and that’s when I realized: Adults lie. They lie and they stole my money.
Little Alton the Con Artist
After that I decided I would simply trick people into giving me things. I conned my father into believing that I didn’t know how to tell time, which I had already taught myself, and then I asked him if he would buy me a watch if I learned how to tell time. That’s hard to resist. But then they bought me this badass little Timex watch.
A Radical Savings Philosophy
I don’t think of saving as saving. I think of it as money hoarding. Because I’m much better at hoarding than I am at saving. I almost only spend money on things that are for work. So I’m not a penny pincher, but I’m super choosy, and I’ll hoard money for quite a while before I do something with it.
The Chore Generation
There was no free money. I came from the generation of chores. Everything had a price tag. It’s not that you got paid for everything you did, but you didn’t get money for doing nothing. There was a lot of emptying cat boxes.
The important lesson about getting an allowance was, There’s your quarter, now what are you going to do with it? I don’t know if I was taught so much about the value of hard work as the value of how slowly one accumulates cash.
The allowance was very good at teaching that saving is a powerful thing and that time is a factor when lust is concerned. Most of the enjoyment I got out of the Star Trek Astro-Buzz-Ray Gun was from the anticipation while saving for it.
A Radical Savings Philosophy Part 2
I have a weakness for vintage automobiles. I only have three, but they’re basically holes that you throw money at. If someone wants to save money, the best things to do are don’t have children and don’t have vintage automobiles.