Curtiss Cook was a single father of three surviving on Kraft macaroni and cheese before his acting career took off.
Now Cook, who recounts having to go on welfare at one point, stars in Showtime’s hit show The Chi, where he plays hustler Otis ‘Douda’ Perry. He’s also shooting Steven Spielberg’s remake of the musical West Side Story in Harlem.
It’s a long way from living off “literally $20 a week,” according to Cook, who first got the acting bug in high school in Dayton, Ohio, when a theater teacher encouraged him to apply himself to the arts. After receiving a scholarship he came to New York to follow his dream of acting on Broadway.
All the same, success didn’t come easy. “I was doing small auditions here, small auditions there, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Kraft macaroni and cheese with some tuna fish in it, and calling it tuna casserole,” Cook says of the times he could barely make ends meet. “It was rough. But I stuck it out.”
Cook talked to MONEY about how his struggles taught him never to give up hope his financial situation would improve and to live within his means, despite his current success. “I have succeeded because Curtiss Jr., Isis and Kimani, I sent them all to college,” he says of his three children.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview:
What kind of money strategies did you use to get by as a struggling actor?
I would like to say that I was smart with money at that time, but that would be a lie. When I initially got here I had saved up a lot of cash from a cruise ship job, and thinking that it was going to last forever I was spending it willy-nilly on things that I didn’t necessarily need. The good thing is that it taught me that once I did obtain a substantial amount of money I should look at it differently and care for it differently.
Were there any financial lessons you had to learn the hard way before you became successful?
I found myself and my three children on what they call “on the dole”, on welfare, and that was such a humiliating feeling that I swore I would never be in that position again. So from that point on, I made sure that for every dollar I received I only spent a quarter of it, and the rest of that will go into savings, and I still exercise that to this day. You would be surprised how quickly that adds up after a while.
How did you balance being a single father of three pursuing your career?
I didn’t think about it. All I did every morning was got up to make sure that everyone had their needs met for that day. I tried not to look too far down the line, it [money] became this huge monster that I’m like, “I can’t tackle this thing.”
You talked about only spending a quarter of every dollar you make. What kinds of other money habits have you picked up?
I’ve never been a guy who likes to buy things on credit, because I jacked up my credit when I first got to the city. In doing that, it also showed me that, you know what? If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it. I’m not going to go out and buy the newest 2019 car ’cause I hate bills. We might get the 2016 [model]. It’s not like I don’t like nice things or luxuries, but I try to spend money on things that I need and those things that I can afford. So I try to stay out of the hole, because I’ve been in the hole before and it is not a good place to be. I’m sure everyone can attest to that.
What is the best thing about being more financially secure now? What is the main kind of money worry you still have?
I try not to worry about money because I’ve found that — it’s weird, but money comes. It may not always come when you need it or when you want it, but it does come eventually. When you have been broke-poor and you’ve had the lights shut off and you’ve been evicted from a house before, and those kind of things where you feel like, “Oh my god, the world is going to end,” — but you realize, “Oh, I’m still here.” You realize if they shut this off now it’s going to be fine because I’ll get it turned back on later on. I have a savings account now, that, if God forbid something were to happen, I’m good for a few months.
Do you have a saving strategy in place? Do you have a retirement plan laid out?
We have 401(k)s and IRAs and other things as well. I don’t really mess with the markets so much and investing…a lot of my friends are like “Come on dude, you need to do that. That’s the best way.” But I always feel like I have trouble with other people managing my money. It’s just the fearful person in me, if there’s a crash I’m like, “Oh my god, all my money is gone and I didn’t have anything to do with it.” So maybe it’s ignorance on my part, but I have it set where I know where it is. If I need to get it immediately I can.
Based on your own experience, what are your most important pieces of financial advice for those struggling to launch their careers or struggling with financial stability?
Pay yourself first. Definitely put away your monies first, and then you honestly don’t need as much money as you think you need. Coming from somebody who had literally $20 a week, you’d be surprised what you can do with that when that’s all you have. If you have four thousand dollars a week, how much do you really need to live off of? It has to start with ‘let me pay me first.’ Put it into some kind of IRA, some kind of savings account, some kind of place where it will accrue a nice amount of savings. You’ll be a lot better off than you would’ve been if you decided to just spend it initially.