Money Talks

'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' star Terry Crews reveals the biggest money mistake he ever made

Terry Crews' career path has been anything but ordinary: He went from sweeping floors for $8 an hour to playing in the NFL to Hollywood stardom. Today, he stars in NBC shows "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "America's Got Talent," and he hit the big screen in popular flicks like "Sorry to Bother You" and "Deadpool 2."

But Crews recently talked to CNBC Make It's managing editor, Jenna Goudreau, about a completely relatable money mistake he made in his early 20s.

In college, Crews remembers, he had four credit cards — a Discover card, Visa, MasterCard and American Express — thanks to the enticing deals offered for students. And they didn't collect dust.

"I had them all, and I ran those suckers up," Crews tells Goudreau in CNBC Make It's new "Money Talks" series.

"I bought VCRs back in the day ... TVs, I bought furniture, bought it for my apartment," says Crews, now 50.

And as a newly married 21-year-old college student, Crews didn't have the money to pay even the monthly minimum on the bills.

"I had so much debt that the neighbor in my apartment complex came down...he was like, 'Dude, the bill collectors are calling me about you,'" Crews says. "I was like, 'I got a problem.' Can you imagine getting a knock on the door and the bill collectors are calling your neighbors?"

Crews was so strapped at the time that he'd sneak into the school's cafeteria to eat for free and was often late on rent, according to his 2014 book, "Manhood." Eventually he had to return all the stuff he'd bought but couldn't afford.

The memory, says Crews, is "heartbreaking" because he got himself into all that debt for all the wrong reasons. Crews was using material things to try and project a certain image.

"Every money mistake I ever made is because I was trying to keep up with people that I was trying to impress, that I really didn't like anyway," Crews says. "It was all about the image, and if I look like this, I'll be better, I'll be more accepted. ... If I have these things, I'll have all the answers."

Crews was drafted by the NFL's Los Angeles Rams a few years later in 1991 and played for the Rams, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins through 1995. Although it gave him a steady income, it never made him rich. When he made the switch to acting in the early 2000s, he says he sometimes had to work two or three jobs to get by, and even dipped into his savings to survive.

His big break came in 2002 with his role in the movie "Friday After Next" (a gig he ended up scoring through working as a security guard on movie sets). Crews went on to land roles in iconic movies like "White Chicks" and "The Expendables," as well as the UPN's hit show "Everybody Hates Chris."

With fame came some big pay days. But Crews has not only grown his bank account, he's also expanded his perspective on what true success really means.

"The thing is — and it's funny because it's just like some sitcom — the answer was inside you all along," Crews says. "This is the big thing the whole world is figuring out right now: that the image means nothing."

You can have things like money, cars and homes, and still be empty inside and plagued by problems, he adds.

"I think the whole world is realizing, 'Wait a minute ... that image has to line up with who you really are,' you know?" Crews says. "And I think we're just finding out right now — more than ever — it's so important that the inside is good, and that people are actually good people."

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