Clark Howard, SPA/BA ’76, recently saw the gentleman who ran the corner store when he was a kid growing up in Atlanta. The store owner told Howard that he was a pint-sized penny-pincher even then, taking “forever” to decide which candy to spend his nickels and dimes on. “I knew you were cheap before you knew you were cheap,” the man said.
Howard laughs, “I was bargain hunting at four years old!”
Today, the media mogul protects pockets, chases bargains, alerts his audience to rip-off scams, and seeks the biggest bang for a buck—all with superhero-like stamina.
Between a nationally syndicated radio show that airs from 1 to 4 p.m. on more than 200 stations every weekday, radio and TV guest appearances, eight books published so far, a weekend television show and money tip segments that air 16 times-per-day on CNN’s HLN (formerly Headline News), and reporting for Atlanta’s ABC WSB- TV affiliate, some days Howard goes nonstop for 11 hours straight.
“I’m so pumped and worked up at the end of the day that my wife, Lane, says that it takes me at least an hour to decompress until I’m ready to enter normal life again and have a conversation with my family,” he says.
2010 marks Howard’s 24th year in radio and he says he never tires of talking about saving more and spending less every day. “I really love helping people,” he says. “When someone calls in, with excitement and confidence, to say that some advice I gave changed their life—that’s the best part.”
Howard says he never cared about being on TV or radio. “I care about teaching and coaching people how to get the most out of their money.”
He uses whatever medium is best to reach people. At one time he wrote newspaper columns. He even created a fax service in the early days of his radio show, where people would pay to have a weekly newsletter faxed to them. Nowadays, his Web site, Clarkhoward.com, is where many people go to get tips and download podcasts.
His advice for the new graduates and alumni alike: Find out what you love to do; then, find a way to make money at it. “Chase the dream, not the paycheck,” he says.
His own involvement with community programs started as a student at AU, where he launched a Big Buddy Program on campus. “I paired students from the College of Arts and Sciences with at-risk youth to establish mentorships.”
His challenge came when he wanted to bring the two groups together. He jumped at the opportunity to buy a bus at a Fairfax dealership and held it with a down payment of his own money while he went to the Student Union to ask for the rest of the funds. His win-win plan to persuade them: Four days a week the bus would be used for the Big Buddy Program and the other three days the bus would be used as a shuttle to take AU students to the grocery store about two miles away. It worked, and the bus proved to be a great investment.
An Urban Development major, Howard says his AU experience affects the work he does every day. “A real estate class with professor James Kokus taught me the importance of location and what to look for when choosing a site for my businesses.” (Howard started a chain of travel agencies at age 25, and six years later sold them, which allowed him to “retire” at age 31.) “I attribute the success of my businesses in part to that one class,” he says, as well as an economics class in which he gained an understanding of how markets work, “which I use every day in my work,” he says.
In 1993, Howard founded the Consumer Action Center as an extension of his show to provide off-air advice. “It started out of frustration with only being able to take five or six phone calls per show. Many people trying to call in each day got a busy signal.”
Today, the center consists of four paid employees and 155 volunteers who dole out free financial advice, and volunteers receive top-notch training, so there’s a long waitlist for their slots.
Despite long work days, Howard gives time to various community programs, such as Atlanta Volunteer Action, Volunteer Action Inc., and Career Action. On top of all that, he’s built 36 homes for Habitat for Humanity with the help of his fans. “It was a brutal winter this year, which slowed us down a bit, but it was a great feeling when we got through it,” he says.
When a volunteer reaches his or her 10th anniversary with the Consumer Action Center, Howard dedicates a house in their name to a family. A record-breaking six volunteers will receive that honor this year. It’s another way that Howard demonstrates the duality of fortune, where frugality can coexist with generosity, a tight fist with an open hand.