What the NFL Is Teaching Its Millionaire Stars About Money

New York Giants Quarterback Davis Webb throws a first half pass behind Devon Kennard of the Detroit Lions during a pre-season game at Ford Field on August 17, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan

Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

Some NFL players are using the summer offseason to work on more than just their conditioning and footwork. Through rookie symposia and boot camps offered by the league, they’re also getting a working knowledge of personal finance.

“We’re fortunate to have high salaries,” says New York Jets outside linebacker Joshua Martin, who recently signed a 1 year, $805,000 contract with the New Orleans Saints, including an average annual salary of $805,000. “But our careers don’t last very long.” Making the money last is one of the reasons he’s made it a priority to attend the optional personal finance boot camps put on by the NFL.

The reality of their short careers is compounded by the fact that many of them are totally new to managing their finances.

“For most of these athletes the NFL is their first full-time job,” notes Carla Lide-Bugilone, Program Manager of NFL Player Engagement. “Having the amount of money they’re making is new for them. We need to provide resources so they can properly handle their money, invest it over time, and grow it.”

But you don’t need to make millions of dollars a year to benefit from the lessons they’re learning.

How to Budget Money

Really? Do you need a budget in an industry where the minimum salary for a rookie is $480,000 (signed by the NFL Players Association in 2011 and in effect through this year)?

Yes, says Maura Attardi, Director of Financial Wellness for Money Management International—which programs some of the boot camps. That’s partly due to the fact that players don’t receive a regular year-round paycheck: Unless they go to the playoffs, NFL players are paid over the 17 weeks of the regular season, then have to stretch that sum over the remainder of the year. That requires basic budgeting strategy, she says. “We have the players create a budget by explaining, this is how much you have when the paycheck comes in, this is what is set aside for spending, saving, off-season living expenses, and your long-term goals.” 

Even Millionaire NFL Players Need to Prioritize

“You have to decide the things that are important to you that you want to do with your money,” says New York Giants Linebacker Devon Kennard. “Then you have to give the others up.” The players who get into financial trouble are those that spend big on everything, rather than picking their vices. Unless you’re among the game’s highest-paid players, “you can’t be a car person, a house person, a jewelry person, a person who wants to travel, and a person who wants to take care of your family,” he says. For Kennard, that meant prioritizing travel, a strategy that’s taken him to Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cabo, with the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic on the calendar this summer.

Preparing for a Sudden Drop in Income

For most people, a sudden loss of income might come in the form of a layoff or other job loss. For NFL players, it’s often a career-ending injury. “We have to remember our careers are short,” says Martin, and indeed, the average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years. This is compounded by the fact that — unlike the other three major American sports leagues — the NFL does not require fully guaranteed contracts. This means, for instance, that a four-year, $28 million income could wind up paying out only the first year’s salary if a player suffers a serious injury or a drop-off in performance.

The goal has to be to save as much as you can when you can, starting with tax-advantaged retirement plans but exceeding them (and saving more) when possible. “I create a goal of how much to save every year,” Martin says. “I make sure I max out the 401(k), but I also [know I can] save over half of what I make without cramping my style.”

How to Handle a Windfall

You give any 19- to 22-year-old millions of dollars in one day and tell ‘em to go live life, they’re going to have ups and downs,” says Kennard. They’re also going to have plenty of people looking to separate them from their money, from needy family members to business people looking for investments. 

The MMI curriculum focuses on separating emotion from business decisions—and also whether or not providing financial help to a loved one is helping or hurting an underlying problem. But, she says, “the most powerful thing is that budget.” That gives you a framework to explain to the people who are asking that your money is already earmarked for long-term goals.

How to Have a Plan B

Both Kennard and Martin are focusing on what life might look like after football. For his part, Martin, who has an interest in finance, has done off-season internships with companies in the investment space. Kennard, who is focused on the field of communications and business management, spends his free time heading into New York City to meet with people who are already highly successful in those industries. “I recognize that this is a game that doesn’t last forever,” he says. “As much success as I have on the field, I want to have more success off the field.”