The Money Secrets Of A Reality TV Star

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.
For Project Runway star Tim Gunn, fame and fortune arrived decades into his already established career as a teacher and college administrator at Parsons School of Design. It wasn’t until age 50, when he began his successful climb into the world of television, red carpet commentating, and best-selling books. Until then, he was a self-described, “pauper educator,” and his financial life has been on quite the journey, ever since. Gunn recently stopped by my daily podcast, So Money, to discuss the show's latest season, the upcoming launch of Project Runway Junior, and some surprising factoids surrounding his financial life. He was unpaid the first two seasons of Project Runway.
As one of my favorite sayings goes, “You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate!” That couldn’t have been more true for Gunn, who, for the first two seasons, earned zero dollars for his appearances on Project Runway. That lasted until an agent walked up to him at a GLAAD event one night and asked Gunn who was the lucky person to represent him. He replied, “Why would I need representation?” Gunn said he didn’t realize people were paid for reality television. “We need to talk,” said the agent, and the two have been working together ever since. “He’s been a Godsend,” says Gunn. He lived paycheck to paycheck for years.
Although Gunn held a prestigious and important job running the largest academic department at Parsons, his salary – relative to living expenses in New York City and exorbitant rent - was not much to write home about. “I was making nothing, living paycheck to paycheck to paycheck,” Gunn shared. “That’s how I’ve spent my life.” He bought his first apartment in 2009.
After years of renting, Gunn put his Project Runway dollars to use by purchasing his first home in 2009. That's when real estate prices in Manhattan – and pretty much everywhere –plunged. It’s a purchase that Gunn defined as one of his “So Money” moments. “The apartment has done nothing but appreciate,” he says. “It’s just been wonderful.” (Fun fact: He and I used to live in the same building. I would often dodge the elevator if he was riding it, for fear of disappointing him with my yoga pants.) He received a $50K inheritance, which he promptly used to pay off debt.
When Gunn’s father died in the '90s, he left him a surprise nest egg totaling $50,000. “It wasn’t a lot, but it wasn’t a little, either,” says Gunn, who was shocked by the fact that his dad had left him anything. “I did not have the best relationship with him.” Gunn put that inheritance to work by paying off all of his credit card debt, and has since committed to living a debt-free life. He’s even refinanced his mortgage from a 30 to 15-year term to pay it off faster. “I don’t want the apartment to outlast me.” He spends very little money on transportation.
If you frequent the subway you might run into Gunn, who usually rides the trains twice a day, he says. Like most New Yorkers, he opts for public transportation over his own set of wheels. Even though he could afford a car (and a nice one at that), he chooses not to. “I don’t own a car and never will,” he says. He doesn’t have many wants.
I’m going to take a guess and say that Gunn is probably one of the few TV stars to live well below his means. “I have basic needs,” he says. “I certainly don’t practice self-deprivation, but I don’t take vacations, I don’t have a second home…and I am responsible for my own wardrobe on any show that I do. I shop with a budget accordingly, because I need a lot of clothes.” Farnoosh Torabi is a financial expert and the host of So Money, a daily podcast that features candid financial conversations with celebrities, best-selling authors, and financial luminaries. Sign up here and receive a free copy of her e-book, So Money Secrets: Financial Habits of Highly Successful People.

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