It made very little cents. Each Saturday, 9-year-old Robert Kiyosaki would spend three hours stocking groceries at his local market in Hilo, Hawaii, to earn less than a dollar. Surely, he thought, there's got to be a better way. Capitalizing on his most valuable asset—his stash of hundreds of comic books—the pint-size entrepreneur opened a library in the basement of a friend's house. For a dime each, pals could spend two hours reading Dick Tracy and Superman, while Kiyosaki and his friend pocketed a whopping $10 a week. "Robert always had an eye for a dollar," says his brother John.

Make that millions of dollars. Now 53, the investment adviser and author estimates his net worth at $10 million. Last month Kiyosaki's second book, 1997's Rich Dad, Poor Dad, a how-to financial guide (published by Warner Books, a division of Time Warner, PEOPLE's parent company), rose to the top of The New York Times' bestseller list after the author appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. His message? A formal education may help land a high-paying job, but it doesn't guarantee financial freedom. To become independently wealthy, he advises, people need to change their spending habits. New homes and cars drain the bank account without adding income. Forgo the Ferrari, he says, and invest in income-generating ventures, such as real estate or the stock market. Otherwise, he writes, "the middle class finds itself in a constant state of financial struggle, going from one paycheck to the next."

Kiyosaki's fans have gotten the message. In 1999 Michael Stevens, 37, a Dallas salesman who never went to college, bought several rental properties after reading Kiyosaki's tome. "I just have a whole new outlook," says Stevens, whose extra income now covers his mortgage payments. But for critics like newsletter publisher John Reed of Alamo, Calif., Kiyosaki's critical view of education sends a risky message. "He forgets that entrepreneurs are just a sliver of the population," says Reed. "Not everyone can be one."

Kiyosaki draws on the experiences of his own Ph.D.-educated, financially strapped father and his best friend's father, a money-savvy high school dropout who became one of Hawaii's wealthiest men. "He pushed for book literacy," says Kiyosaki of his dad, Ralph, former head of Hawaii's education department, who, with his wife, Marjorie, a nurse (both now deceased), struggled to support their four children. "But at the end of the month, there was never anything left." In comparison, says Kiyosaki, "my [friend's dad] pushed for financial literacy."

Kiyosaki himself was never a stellar student. Still, after graduating from high school in 1965, he won an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy. Four years later he joined the Marine Corps and became a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. In 1973 Kiyosaki returned to Honolulu, where he landed a job at Xerox selling copiers.

A natural salesman, Kiyosaki used his bonuses and borrowed money to start new businesses, including a firm that made Velcro and nylon wallets and a company that sold promotional shirts and caps. While his fortunes rose and fell over the next eight years, his love life stabilized in 1983, when an ex-girlfriend introduced Kiyosaki to Kim Meyer, a sales rep. "He was very persistent, sending me flowers and postcards from business trips," recalls Kim, now 43. The couple became business partners before marrying in 1986, "when they really didn't have two dimes to rub together," says her mom, Winnie Meyer. At one point they even had to sleep in their Toyota. But in 1988 their luck began to change, after they launched a series of seminars on entrepre-neurship run by the charismatic Kiyosaki. Today they live off stock investments, book sales, income from rental units and stakes in silver and coal mines from Colombia to China.

And though far from spendthrifts, the couple do indulge in life's finer things. In December they plan to move into a three-bedroom, $1.2 million house in the tony Biltmore section of Phoenix. And in 1996 Kiyosaki gave in and bought a much-coveted Porsche—albeit at a discount. One luxury not on their list is children. "We've talked about it every year, but when the urge hits us," says Kiyosaki, laughing, "we just go borrow someone else's."

Joanne Fowler
Jerry Kammer in Phoenix

  • Contributors:
  • Jerry Kammer.