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Self-made millionaire Mario Batali: This is the only time it’s worth getting into debt

Mario Batali
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Mario Batali

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali got his start in college at Stuff Yer Face, a pizza joint on the Rutgers University campus. Today, he co-owns a culinary empire worth hundreds of millions.

He took risks to get there, and yet Batali's best advice for financial success is conservative: Don't get into debt. "Live within your means," he tells Laurie Woolever of Wealthsimple. "Debt limits your freedom to make decisions. Debt's good for buying real estate; it's not good for paying for vacations."

However, hearkening back to this own experience, he points out that there's one occasion when consumer debt can be helpful: "A good investment that will eventually buy you freedom."

The Food Network star has seen it all. After he abandoned his one-time dream of becoming a banker and decided he'd rather cook, he went from being one of the highest paid sous chefs at the Four Seasons to working for free in Italy. He borrowed $25,000 from friends and family to open his first restaurant, Po, but then he turned the endeavor into a successful $2.5 million-a-year business.

After meeting Joe Bastianich in the late '90s, Batali used the advance from his first book to open Babbo with Bastianich, which is now one of his best-known restaurants. It was a risk, but the investment paid off. Within a year, both men were pulling in six figures from the venture.

The success of Babbo prompted Batali and Bastianich to expand their empire, which has since provided Batali the financial freedom to live a full life without worrying about the balance in his checking account.

When CNBC Make It asked Batali about the best investment he's ever made, he smiled and began to list off his 28 restaurants, which now bring in around $200 million a year, according to Wealthsimple.

However, Batali says what's important isn't the amount of money he's made, but the legacy he's created. "I don't even know how much money I have in the bank, but I have enough to continue to live a great lifestyle and I'm not that worried about it," he said.

The No. 1 thing the self-made millionaire has learned about money over his career is to not worry about it. "Find things that have more value than money," he says.

He appears to live out that mindset firsthand. Despite his wealth, Batali doesn't spend much on himself: He drives a Ford Flex, only owns one watch and is famous for rocking a pair of affordable orange Crocs.

The one thing he will splurge on: Vacation. "We have really good vacations, and I'll upgrade to first class when I fly," he tells Wealthsimple. "I don't care about anything else."

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