My wife and I were going to be on Ellen. After two rounds of screenings and interviews, we made the cut. Everything was set. All we had to do was schedule a date to get on the air and shoot.
You always hear about the athletes who go broke, the ones who blow all their money and end up on a documentary as “cautionary tales.” So I wanted to tell my story — the one about the NFL player living on a $60,000-a-year budget. I wanted to show that there are athletes out there doing the right things, too. But I also wanted to tell the story of why I did it and how. And I thought that by sharing my story, I could help people — maybe even some other players — be smarter about their money.
I always thought what I was doing was “the story,” not the fact that I was an NFL player who was doing it. But when the Lions and I parted ways just before the start of the 2015 season, I got a message from the people at Ellen.
They wanted to hold off on production.
I guess to them, if I wasn’t an active NFL player, it wasn’t that big of a story anymore.
It’s funny, because that’s a perfect example of why I adopted my financial philosophy in the first place. I knew that even after you’ve made it to the NFL and you’re “living the dream,” it can all be gone in a split second. The game, the paycheck, the spotlight — just like that, you could lose everything. Even your spot on Ellen.
I knew that firsthand because I almost had the NFL dream taken from me before I even had a chance to live it.
It was the ninth game of my senior season at Oklahoma. We were playing Texas A&M. In the third quarter, I ran a crossing route at about the 30-yard line heading into the end zone. I caught the ball and turned upfield, dragging in my wake a defender who was pulling on my jersey. I saw another defender charging downhill at me, so I stuck my left foot in the ground to juke him out, thinking that if I could get the two defenders to collide and take each other out, I’d walk into the end zone.
When I planted my foot in the ground, my left knee gave out with a Pop! and I went straight to the ground.
That Pop! I felt was my ACL snapping. It was completely torn.
The NFL draft was only a few months away, and as I was being helped off the field, knee buckling, all I was thinking was, That’s it. It’s over for me. Football’s done. Now I gotta go get a job …
That was the first major injury I’d ever suffered, and it was the first time that I really thought about a life without football. It made me promise myself that if I made it back to the field, I wouldn’t take it for granted. I’d play every down like it could be my last and prepare like it could all be gone in an instant. Especially the paycheck.
As a college kid, I paid everything late. Cell phone bills. Electric bills. Car payments. I didn’t know anything about credit, and I didn’t really care. My parents never had credit cards when I was growing up, so it was just something I never thought about. We never really talked about money or budgeting or finances in our house. My parents worked hard to provide food and shelter, but there wasn’t a lot of extra money to go around. I didn’t get an allowance. I was mowing lawns at eight years old to fund my travel to basketball camps and tournaments.
As I grew older and my friends started turning 16, their parents bought them cars. They got gas money, their insurance paid for — everything. I didn’t get my car until I was 18. It was a hand-me-down — a dark green Mitsubishi Galant my parents had been driving for years. Me and my boys called it “The Green Machine.” I paid for everything, too. Gas. Insurance. Repairs. One time, my front bumper came off and I didn’t have the money to get it fixed, so I re-attached it to the frame of the car with some wire. It didn’t look pretty, but it was cost effective and it got the job done.
I had to work for everything I had, even when I was a kid, so I knew the importance and value of money. And I knew that once I started making some money, I was going to be a good steward of it. I knew about money … I just didn’t know how money worked.
Then I got to the NFL.
As a part of the draft process, teams did background checks — including pulling credit reports.
Guys: You know how your girl will always tell you something, and you either won’t listen, or you’ll wait until it’s too late to listen? My girlfriend in college — who’s now my wife — was always telling me that I needed to pay my bills on time. But I didn’t listen.
So when NFL teams started pulling my credit report, it was terrible. I had late payments. Delinquent bills. Accounts in collections. It was bad. That’s when I finally realized, Alright … I gotta wise up. And I picked up a book that changed my whole mindset. A book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
Basically, it’s written by a guy who had two dads — a Rich Dad and a Poor Dad — and each dad taught a different thought process. The Poor Dad’s philosophy basically reinforced the way I already thought about money: Make money to live, and save some along the way. But the Rich Dad’s lessons — making your money work for you by investing it and acquiring income-generating assets — made me realize that I needed to make changes in how I thought about money if I ever wanted to be that Rich Dad and not have to work for somebody else.
I never wanted that. I always wanted to do my own thing. So I sat down at my computer and started researching some of the Rich Dad’s lessons, and I immediately discovered the most valuable tool in financial education: Google.
I started researching credit reports, and I learned that it’s basically like your report card from grade school, only for real life. (As I type that it seems so obvious, but that’s how low my financial IQ was coming out of college. I didn’t even know the basics.) So when the Lions drafted me in the second round of the 2012 draft and I got my signing bonus, the first thing I did was pay down my debts and put my bills on autopay — the first steps to getting my credit right. Then I read about things like real estate financing. Stocks. Bonds. Interest rates. Compound interest. P/E ratios.
Stop me if I’m boring you … and don’t feel bad if I am. There was a time in my life when I would have been bored, too. But that’s the Poor Dad mindset. The Rich Dad mindset is what I had when I signed my $3.6 million rookie contract and got that $1.1 million guaranteed, and I thought, How can I never work again? How can I make my NFL money last the rest of my life?
The financial advisor horror stories you’ve heard from all those broke athletes are true. There are some shady dudes out there. I met with some guys who were like, “We’ll handle your money and we’ll cut you a check every month to make sure you’re not spending it all. You can come to us if you want to take $1,000 out of your account.”
I was like, “Nah … I’m a grown man. I can handle this.”
Then, after meeting with a few advisors, I found one who had a better way of helping me manage my spending.
“Go live freely,” he told me. “Spend what you want to spend and live the lifestyle you want to live, and we’ll check back in a few months and see how you’re doing, how much you’re spending.”
It was a simple plan for me. I was a rookie and I suddenly had more money than I knew what to do with, but I’ve never really been a big spender. So when I went off to “live freely,” I didn’t go too crazy. Going to the movies or buying some shoes or eating out more than I should — that’s my “going crazy.”
So I sat back with my advisor after a few months, and with all my bills, plus the money I was spending on entertainment, I was consistently spending $5,000 a month (after taxes). Here’s how it broke down:
My wife and I had a couple of car payments and a mortgage like anyone else, and those — along with other bills and expenses like cell phones, insurance, gas, groceries — came out to a little over $4,000 a month. The rest was spent on entertainment and whatever else we wanted.
So that’s what my advisor and I set my budget as: $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year. That’s what I was spending and I was happy with my standard of living, so why did I need anything more than that? The rest of the money went into the stock market and other investments for later on down the road when those NFL checks stopped coming in.
If I went back to my advisor and I was spending $20,000 a month, we would have had some issues. I would have had to cut back. A lot.
Don’t get me wrong — I was tempted to spend more, and I’m still tempted. I still splurge every now and then. My wife and I like to go on vacations every year like anybody else. We just had a baby boy this year, and there are obviously expenses that come along with that. Everybody incurs expenses that cause them to stretch here and there and life events that change their circumstances.
But when my wife and I go on vacation, we try and cut back in other areas to offset the cost. That $5,000-a-month budget is just that — a budget. It’s about finding a number you’re comfortable with and staying as true to that number as possible. You just always have to be aware of what you’re spending and why.
I’m not gonna lie — it’s not easy. It takes some work, and it takes a lot of discipline and sacrifice. I don’t have cable. I use Apple TV and Netflix. My wife and I don’t go out to eat a lot, and I make sure I pay off my credit cards every month.
It’s something you have to completely commit to, or human nature will set in and you’ll start to make exceptions. It’s like being on a diet. Once you start cheating, it gets harder and harder to stop cheating and then harder and harder to get back to where you want to be.
I think that’s why so many guys go broke. They come out of the gates as a rookie spending a lot of money, and they establish a lifestyle for themselves that they can’t sustain because they’re not saving and investing enough money for the future. Then one day, the checks stop coming in, and you wake up and all your money’s gone because you’re trying to fund that lifestyle you’ve already gotten accustomed to.
But by the time I got the the league, I knew better. The goal was to play 10 years in the NFL. But financially, I planned like I wouldn’t make it past the next 10 minutes.
There is no secret. You just have to be aware, and you have to take the first step, which is getting educated.
Are you on Facebook and Twitter all day? Stop it. Get on Google and learn the game of finances. Pick up Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Trust me, you’ll thank me. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just learn from what others have done and decide what works for you. You don’t have to be an NFL player or be making a ton of money to take charge of your finances.
The Lions and I may have parted ways, but I don’t believe I’m done in the NFL. I’m playing it week by week, working hard in the gym to keep my body right and my mind right. It’s just that right now, instead of studying film to see how I can expose defenses every week, I’m studying the market to see where I can capitalize on opportunities. Instead of stats like receptions, yards and touchdowns, I’m looking at FHA loan rates, market values and PMI. I’m doing whatever I have to do to get ahead and stay ahead financially, but still staying ready physically. And if and when that phone rings with an NFL team on the other end, I’ll be ready.
But if it doesn’t ring, I’ll be ready for that, too.