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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Professional athletes face a tough challenge early in their careers — learning to deal with large sums of money as they become stars, often at a young age.
Isaiah Thomas, the star basketball player, and Major League Baseball player Dexter Fowler sat down with CNBC at the Future Proof Wealth Festival to discuss the money lessons they learned during their professional careers. Financial advisor Joe McLean, who works with Fowler and Thomas, also shared advice from wealthy athletes such as NBA star Klay Thompson and professional golfer Sergio Garcia.
Here are six of their best money tips.
1. Save more than you spend
Isaiah Thomas during the 2016 NBA All-Star Game.
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“Once I got the money, when my professional career started, learning how to save was the biggest thing I learned,” said Thomas, 33, a point guard who is now a free agent. He played for many teams during his decade-long career and was a two-time NBA All-Star with the Boston Celtics from 2014-2017.
When his first paycheck came in, Thomas and McLean set parameters: 70% of every net dollar went into a savings fund. That made compliance automatic, said McLean, founder and CEO of San Ramon, Calif.-based Intersect Capital, which ranked 94thousand on CNBC’s 2021 Top 100 Financial Advisors list.
“Save more than you spend is our philosophy every month,” Thomas said.
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The savings percentage can vary depending on the athlete and the stage of their career, McLean said. It could be 40% on a player’s first contract, 60% to 70% on the second and 80% on the third and beyond, because at that point “the cash flow is very high,” McLean said.
This approach helps players choose the lifestyle they want to live “before your lifestyle chooses it for you,” he added.
“You have to make a decision from the beginning” to develop a habit, he said.
2. “Always prepare for rainy days”
“Always prepare for rainy days,” said Fowler, 36, a World Series-winning outfielder with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. He is now a free agent.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he added. “You [could] get into an accident; you can stop working.
“Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
Dexter Fowler during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
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Fowler describes himself as a lifelong rescuer. As a child, he saved birthday checks from family members because he didn’t know they needed to be cashed.
“People live in the moment,” he added. “Don’t get me wrong, you have a flaw.
“I like watches; it’s my vice, but I don’t have 10 vices,” Fowler said. “That’s how you go crazy; you’re going to spend money, but spend it right.”
3. Be aware of the financial implications
For people who make significant amounts of money, bad financial decisions don’t have immediate consequences, McLean said.
“You may have a large Amex account, [you’re] swipe, make a couple of big purchases, but because the money is still coming in, the card is still working,” he said. “You don’t feel it.
As McLean explains, “the laws of finance do not follow the laws of physics.”
Here’s what happens in sports: You save a ton of money, but you have a big lifestyle and you don’t let it add up.
founder and CEO of Intersect Capital
“When you’re walking on a log, you have to watch where you’re going, and if you come off it, you’ll fall into the water,” he said. “When you take your eyes off your money, when you make a lot of money, nothing happens.”
That is, until the money dries up.
“A lot of athletes think it’s never going to end or it’s never going to end,” Fowler said Tuesday during a question-and-answer session at Future Proof. “But yes.”
4. “Live as if you are already retired”
“Live like you’re retired,” Fowler told CNBC.
The thinking is that if you overspend during your working years, it’s hard to transition to a more frugal lifestyle later — something that someone who can’t afford to spend lavishly might need.
With that mindset, “you don’t have to change your lifestyle when you’re retired,” Fowler said.
“And that’s hard to do,” he added. “You’re in locker rooms and clubs… [and] you see a dude driving to a [Lamborghini].
“You say I make seven times what you do and I don’t feel like I can afford it.”
5. Let your money grow
Thomas and Fowler, each in their 30s, have a long investment horizon — and that’s a very strong thing, McLean said.
Time harnesses the power of compound interest, which is calculated from the principal plus accrued interest, meaning investment returns accumulate more quickly.
“That’s what happens in sports: You save a ton of money, but you have a big lifestyle and you don’t let it add up,” McLean said. “Let that money go for another 10 years, double it again, [then another] time, that’s when it becomes multi-generational wealth.”
By comparison, “you avoid the compounding effect” by continuing to spend heavily and shrink the portfolio over the next decade, he said.
Fowler puts this idea into practice.
“We want to save the next 10 years,” he said of his family. “We’re cutting back on everything.”
6. Look beyond the lump sum
Fowler received a signing bonus of nearly $1 million in 2004 when he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. He had just graduated high school, was 18, and had gotten his first contract, he said.
“Are you sitting there saying I have $1 million?” he said. “One million dollars was a lot of money back then.”
“But $1 million is not that far,” he added.
For regular retirees, the same principle can apply – $1 million may seem like enough money to live a great life, but may not achieve what people expect when retirement can last three decades or more.
After receiving a signing bonus, Fowler immediately wanted to buy a car. Newly drafted players all bought Escalades and Range Rovers — so he bought a Range Rover, against the advice of his father, who recommended leasing instead of buying a car, Fowler said. (Fowler now leases his cars exclusively; he owns two Teslas. The cars are “depreciable assets,” he explained.)
Taxes also ate up a significant portion of his signing bonus, Fowler added. Then, when he played minor league ball after the draft, he realized it was difficult to live on that salary, which brought him about $300-$400 every two weeks, making the bonus necessary to make ends meet.
“I’ve seen a bunch of guys get hired in the offseason,” he said. “I’m lucky I didn’t have to do that.”