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LeBron James grew up with so little he 'had no idea what a pantry was until I was 15'—but he learned 1 crucial money lesson

LeBron James speaks onstage during the 2016 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Ceremony
Slaven Vlasic | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

NBA star LeBron James is the highest-paid player in the league: His earnings, including salary and endorsements, total $88.7 million for the 2018-2019 season, Forbes reports

But James, who signed a four-year, $153 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers last year, hasn't always had money. Before exploding onto the basketball scene, he and his mom were living in the projects of Akron, Ohio, and struggling to make ends meet. They moved from one apartment to the next every few months and got by with help from food stamps.

His grew up with so little, he recalls on an episode of UNINTERRUPTED's new podcast, "Kneading Dough," that "I had no idea what a pantry was until I was like 15 years old." Whatever food his household had was kept "on top of the refrigerator," he tells podcast host and longtime friend Maverick Carter. "Everything: chips, cereal, bread. All on top of the refrigerator."

While he didn't have much as a kid, he learned how to manage the little money he did have, thanks to early, and critical, lessons from his uncles.

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"My uncles always taught me — they taught me how to have a savings account," James told Carter in a separate conversation on UNINTERRUPTED, the digital platform that he and Carter launched in 2014. "They'd give me a dollar and they'd be like, 'Listen, nephew, go spend 35 cents of it and keep the other 65.' Or, if they gave me two dollars, they'd be like, 'Go ahead and spend a dollar of it, but stash the other dollar.'"

That stuck with him, he said: "I'm always in my head about stashing and keeping my money sacred ... because I didn't know when my uncle was going to give me another dollar here and another 50 cents here."

It was an early lesson in the importance of paying yourself first, no matter your income. Whether you have $1 at a time, like James did as a kid, or millions, like the NBA star has now, that means putting at least a small portion into a savings or investment account.

The key is to make that automatic: Have a percentage of your income automatically taken out of your paycheck and sent straight to your savings. That way you'll never even see the money and learn to live without it. And when your earnings increase, don't boost your spending — instead, up your savings rate.

Today, despite having earned millions over his NBA career, James still plays it safe with his money. That's not to say he never treats himself. James splurges on something that matters to him: his car collection. As he told Carter, "That's the one thing that I love. I love cars."

Still, generally, he's careful. He turns off data roaming on his phone to avoid the extra charges, refuses to buy mobile apps and uses the free version of Pandora with commercials.

Don't miss: LeBron James went from the projects to earning $89 million a year—here's how he teaches his kids about money

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LeBron James admits to being the cheapest player in the NBA
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