Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriot's monstrously sized and monstrously talented tight end, would seem the epitome of the hard partying pro-athlete who burns through his money, taking 700 fans on a four-day Bahamas cruise on a liner renamed "Gronk's Party Boat" back in 2016.
But while the 6'6", 265-pound "Gronk," as he is affectionately known to fans, may play the fool, he's not a fool when it comes to his money, with party goers paying their own way on the trip. In fact, Gronkowski apparently keeps it very real when it comes to his finances, having stashed away the millions he's earned from the NFL while paying for his living expenses with this various marketing and endorsement deals, the Patriots star revealed in a 2015 book, "It's Good to Be Gronk."
Or take Glover Quin, the Detroit Lions safety, who lives off 30% of his NFL salary while investing the rest in relatively safe, blue-chip stocks. His millions in savings now total more than what he has been paid during his years in the league.
Unfortunately, financial success stories like Gronkowski and Quin are in the minority in pro-sports, with athletes by and large having earned a well-deserved reputation for reckless and risky behavior when it comes to their money.
For every Gronk and Quin there is a Dez Bryant, a Cowboys wide receiver who once dropped $55,000 on a night out at a restaurant as part of a team-building exercise, or for that matter, Aaron Rodgers, the Packers quarterback, who bought each member of his offensive line a $20,000 ATV for Christmas.
Other players have sunk money into risky restaurant, real estate and hedge fund deals, only to lose millions. Nearly 16% of all NFL players had filed for bankruptcy by the time they've reached their 12th year in retirement, a 2015 study found.
While this all may seem far removed from the financial issues most of us are dealing with, much can be learned, both good and bad, from both the successes and the mistakes pro athletes have made in managing their money, experts note.
"Money should be spread over the life cycle," says Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University. "Your approach should be a life cycle approach and not a spend today approach."
Here are some money lessons drawn from the experiences of pro athletes:
- Plan for the future: Too many players in all pro sports get into financial trouble because they can't see beyond the current season, or, for that matter, the latest night out. Smart players realize their days on the field are numbered and so squirrel away their pay for the day when injury strikes or their reflexes slow. Robert Swift earned as much as $20 million in four years in the NBA after being drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2004, only to be forced into retirement by a torn ACL. By 2013, all his money was gone and Swift wound up evicted from a foreclosed home, leaving behind trash, feces, guns, ammo and even unopened college scholarship offers, according to the New York Post. Swift blew his fortune on a $1.4 million home, new SUVs and housing for his parents, a truck, and apparently lots of booze, tattoos and partying. While most people won't come close to the kind of quick payday Swift enjoyed, whatever we do for work, we probably won't be able to do it forever, or at least not at the same level. It's time to save money when you are doing well and at the peak of your earnings, not just when things are tight, Lusardi notes.
- Don't buy more house than you can handle: When pro athletes hit the jackpot, a favorite thing to do is to splurge on a big house or even a mansion. But even if you are worth hundreds of millions, there's still a house out there that's too rich for your budget, as boxer Evander Holyfield found out. He splurged on 109-room, 235-acre estate in Utah. His electric bill hit $17,000 one month and he was forced to borrow $550,000 to pay for landscaping. If you are borrowing from the bank to pay the guy who mows the lawn, it's a sure sign of trouble.
- Pay your taxes: Lots of pro athletes have gotten into trouble with their taxes over the years, or, more accurately, for not paying their taxes. Former Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry wound up spending three months in prison in the mid-1990s for tax evasion. Strawberry copped to purposely failing to report $350,000 in earnings from autograph shows and promotional appearances on which he should have paid $100,000 in taxes. Former Reds star Pete Rose, ejected from baseball in a gambling scandal, has been in trouble with the taxman on and off over the years, serving five months in jail in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. Simple lesson: Be honest and pay your taxes. And don't play games with side income.
- Make sure your financial advisor is honest: Pro athletes have also lost millions trusting the wrong people. In particular, some of the biggest stars in sports have had a fatal soft spot for fancy-talking investment gurus who later turned out to be frauds. Former Red Sox and Yankees start Johnny Damon saw an $84 million fortune vanish after falling for a Ponzi scheme by Allen Stanford. Eric Dickerson, a former NFL star, fell for an investment scammer who enhanced his appeal by also posing as an Italian count. What's the lesson here? If an investment proposal looks too good to be true - guaranteed 20% returns, for example - something could very well be off. It all starts, though, with hiring the right financial advisor who you can reasonably trust to have your best interests at heart. A good starting place is checking with the Central Registration Depository run by Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. You can check to see whether a broker is registered to do business - a key requirement - and also if he or she has faced any disciplinary actions.
Don't Get Cocky: The headlines are strewn with stories of jocks who thought their phenomenal success on the field would automatically translate into risky business ventures. Too often, it doesn't. Curt Schilling, the now retired Red Sox pitching ace who in 2004 led the team to its first World Series championship since 1918, lost $50 million trying to start his own video game company, a risky and capital intensive venture. There are innumerable examples of athletes lost money opening up restaurants and bars and investing in real estate as well, notes George Washington University's Lusardi. These are risky investments that require 24/7 commitment to be successful.