The Tampa Bay Buccaneers each took home a bonus of $124,000 for winning the Super Bowl on Sunday evening — well above what the median American household makes in a year. The Buccaneers’ 43- year old quarterback Tom Brady, who had an extra half million dollar bonus riding on the outcome of Super Bowl LV, made even more money on top of his regular $50 million contract and other bonuses, according to ESPN.
And yet, even pro athletes whose paychecks have more zeros than some people might earn in their career can make money mistakes. That’s where Brandon Copeland comes in.
Copeland, a linebacker for the New England Patriots, a team that has won the Vince Lombardi Trophy six times in the last 20 years, may not be going to the Super Bowl this year — but he has plenty of achievements off the field. One of them is teaching others about money.
“Football has always been an opportunity to have access to more; it’s been a means to an end,” says Copeland, 29. “Whether it’s real estate, investing, financial education, or giving back, it’s about maximizing the platform to help people.”
Copeland focuses on financial literacy because he noticed how other football players, for all their wealth, often know little about managing money. The lessons they can learn, Copeland says, apply just as well to people with more normal incomes.
That’s why he began teaching a financial literacy seminar called “Life 101” at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, about two years ago, and recently launched the same course online. In fact, Copeland lives like a normal person with a side gig teaching — not your average football star. Even though he earns roughly $1 million a year on his current contract with the Patriots, he saves more than 90% of his salary and lives on a little over $70,000 a year with his wife.
Much of Copeland’s advice comes from his own personal experience at hedge funds and on Wall Street, where he interned twice at investment bank UBS and worked as a data analyst at Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisers during the 2017 NFL offseason, and as a real estate investor. He also brings in experts from specific fields, such as his tax accountant, to fill in any gaps.
“It’s about sharing information in a digestible way that I’m privy to when it comes to financial education and access to opportunities, so people feel empowered to take control of their own situations,” says Copeland, who is himself a graduate of UPenn’s Wharton School.
Great at Sports, Bad at Money
Copeland’s contracts over the years have been worth more than many Americans earn in a lifetime. But he says he has no trouble living on just a little more than the U.S. median household income of about $69,000.
“For some people, it’s hard to make that happen, but for us to do the things that we need to do and live the life we want to live, it costs us that. We budgeted that and we put that into play,” says Copeland. “We’re not here to overspend just to prove a point to people.”
Reed Crosson, a financial advisor and managing director for the professional athlete division of Ronald Blue Trust, says many pro athletes create a lifestyle they cannot sustain in the long term.
More than 15% of NFL players go bankrupt within 12 years of leaving the league, according to 2015 research by the National Bureau of Economic Research based on all players drafted by NFL teams from 1996 to 2003.
Crosson and Copeland say there are a few reasons behind that staggering statistic: most NFL players are very young, have had little to no experience managing large sums of money, and have a relatively short window of time to figure it out. The average length of a career in the NFL is only 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players’ Association.
“It’s hard to tell a young adult who’s on top of the world, ‘This is the most money you’ll ever make in your life. This is the best it’s going to get,’” says Copeland. “So when you see that check come in for the first time, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that it could potentially not come again next week or two years from now.”
Most pro athletes earn huge salaries at a very young age and have to adapt quickly, as opposed to average Americans whose salaries grow over time and are typically highest when they retire.
Lauryn Williams, a three-time Olympic medalist, Certified Financial Planner, and founder of Worth Winning, can relate. Williams said she dealt with a lot of pressure to live a certain lifestyle when she was competing in the mid-2000s.
“When I became a professional athlete, so many people told me I had to buy a house. People told me whatever you earn, three times that much is the cost of a house you can afford. As a financial planner now, I would say nothing could be further from the truth, but these were narratives that were going around at the time,” says Williams. “I did buy too much house and I ended up selling it later on.”
Williams says it’s really easy to get caught up in the moment as a professional athlete, and not understand how to get help — or know what questions to ask in order to get help to start organizing one’s finances.
“You see the money come in overnight, but you don’t realize that there’s a very small window on which you’re going to earn that money. It’s incredibly important that athletes create a plan that thinks about the long term because this money is very, very frequently short term,” says Williams.
4 Money Lessons You Can Learn From an NFL Pro
Whether you’re an NFL player signing multi-million dollar contracts or an employee earning a normal salary — and making a higher salary later in life, rather than in your 20s — the fundamental building blocks of money management are the same.
Budget, save, invest, build wealth.
Here are four money lessons from Copeland that everyone can incorporate into their life:
Make a Budget
It’s no secret that many pro athletes earn giant sums of money. But with all that money comes a need to be very intentional about budgeting — just like everyone else. Setting yourself for a strong future is one thing, but you also need to have a strong understanding of what you need to spend to live, says Williams.
For Copeland, knowing how much money is coming in and how much is going out has been essential throughout his life. It’s how he’s been able to save the majority of his NFL salary, and still live a life that makes him content.
And it’s something that everyone should embrace, he says. If you’re reconsidering your budget or don’t know where to start, you can learn how to create a budget that works for you.
“In my rookie year every Sunday or Monday, I would sit down and track all the dollars I was spending. I did that for a while, and I would see trends in certain areas where I was overspending,” says Copeland. “I did that for a few months just to practice. I developed a habit of understanding that my swipes matter.”
Build Your Savings
Like many other pro athletes, Copeland recognizes that his paycheck could easily disappear any day. The same principle applies to everyone else: an unexpected event, such as a medical emergency or a layoff, could drastically affect your income. That’s why building and maintaining an emergency fund that’s easily accessible is so important.
“Save, save, save,” says Crosson. “That’s the biggest thing.”
The amount of money you should put away in emergency savings depends on your income, expenses, and financial goals. Generally, most experts recommend about six months’ worth of living expenses. But the more you can fine-tune it over time to meet your needs, the better your financial situation will be in the long run.
Understand How Taxes Work
Tax planning is critical for NFL players making millions a year, especially since they typically fall in the highest tax bracket.
“Let’s say an NFL player makes $2 million. Well, half of it goes to taxes and their agent,” says Crosson, referring to the importance of understanding the difference between net and gross income.
But being prepared for tax season is equally important for the average American who earns regular paychecks. With the start of this year’s tax season right around the corner, now is a great time to implement savvy strategies to minimize your tax bill, such as contributing to an individual retirement account or taking advantage of certain tax credits.
Plan For Life After Work
For Copeland, becoming financially secure is more than just saving money. It’s also about learning to invest properly for the future. That means setting aside money in an emergency fund, creating a mix of income sources, and having a long-term strategy for retirement.
But he also recognizes that “it’s hard at 19 or 20 years old to start planning for retirement and the future.” It takes some trial and error to figure out your optimal long-term savings strategy. After all, making a financial plan is never a one-and-done deal; it requires adjustments to reflect changing priorities in your life.
“A good rule of thumb is that for every $40,000 or $50,000 in living expenses, you need about $1 million invested. That’s on average a return of 4-5% (every year). So if you have $1 million invested, you can pull out $40,000 and not eat into the principal,” says Crosson, referring to the sustainable withdrawal rate — the amount you can theoretically withdraw from your retirement without running out of money.
Copeland acknowledges that his football career could end at any moment, which is why he made it a point to gain experience in different career fields and start his own side hustles. He suggests starting a side hustle or two to create new income streams and protect yourself in case your main source of income disappears.
“There are some players, like Brandon, that do a really good job on not giving up on their dream of playing for the NFL,” says Crosson, “but still think through what they’re going to do when they’re done.”