A doctor on TV, Hill Harper is a money guru in real life

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Many Hollywood stars are known for their lavish spending, but Hill Harper is far on the other end of the spectrum. He gives out sound money advice - not in character on TV, but in real life, with his knowledge gained as a Harvard-trained lawyer and serial entrepreneur.

FILE PHOTO: Hill Harper pictured at AFI Fest 2015 in Hollywood, California, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian/File Photo

While his first major break was in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” Harper, 52, is probably best known for his role as Sheldon Hawkes in “CSI: NY.” He currently co-stars in “The Good Doctor.”

Harper is now adding spokesman to his resume, launching a campaign for the credit bureau Experian’s new free Boost tool, which helps people with limited credit or low scores by scanning their bank accounts and factoring in things like cell phone and utility payments. Harper spoke with Reuters about how he developed his passion for helping people with their money.

Q: Who first taught you the value of a dollar growing up in Iowa?

A: What’s interesting is that most people are taught a dollar is a dollar. My father taught me this – it’s smart money versus dumb money. A dollar isn’t a dollar. There are dollars that work for you, and some that don’t.

By him teaching me that, he helped me understand how important your relationship to money is. It’s impacted my life in every way.

Q: You said in your book “The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place,” that paying credit card interest is the dumbest money of all. How did you come by that observation?

A: It’s the worst. I know it because with my foundation [Manifest Your Destiny], I work with so many people who get into debt, and they pay the minimum. If you set yourself up that far behind, it’s hard to get out.

It’s expensive to be poor. There’s a quote: The people who can least afford it are charged the most.

We have to control how we use the tool of money in general, and we can transform people’s lives. It’s sad and atrocious that we don’t teach financial literacy in school. We teach math, but we don’t teach money. It has more impact than trigonometry, without question.

Q: What is your own money management style?

A: My father told me to have an automatic savings plan. That is one of the most transformative things. I had a Vanguard S&P 500 fund, a Vanguard BRIC fund. I invested into those, with very low commissions, because the time value of money works.

Then, as you develop some savings, you can leverage that savings and you couple that with credit health.

Q: What role does that credit health play in people’s lives?

A: A high credit score helps you in almost every area of your life, no matter gender or income level.

Let’s be very clear: There are more than 100 million people who don’t have access to credit or they don’t have a credit file at all. It’s not good for them or American economy. They are forced to rely on high-interest loans, payday lenders, rent-to-own. These things are predatory and taking money from people who can least afford it. If we can improve credit scores across the board ... it gives them opportunities.

Q: How do you decide what to invest in and what projects to take on?

A: I truly believe that I am a big say yes person. If you are hit with an intuitive notion, say yes. The more I can do, the more I can scale. That’s what it comes down to. I own a coffee shop in Detroit, a hotel in New Orleans. I employ people. I write books, and I do TV shows. We’re here for a reason and a season.

Q: You adopted a son three years ago. What money values do you want to pass on to him?

A: I bought him a bank – it’s like a safe. I’m just now teaching him values of different coins. When he’s old enough, I want to encourage him to do part-time jobs, and he can create income.

A: You have a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and are friends with Barack Obama from law school. Are you tempted to follow in his political footsteps?

Q: I really have to step back and look where I can have the most impact. Being a private citizen, I can do more than if I was hamstrung by politics. But it looks like all the rules are out the window, so maybe I have to rethink that.

Editing by Lauren Young; Editing by Susan Thomas