Former New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski and New York Giants star Saquon Barkley both made news when it was discovered that they spend none of their NFL football salary, instead living off endorsements and other income. That means they must be pretty good with money, something you don't normally associate with professional football players.

But New York Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland is reading from another playbook altogether. The 263-pound athlete (who re-signed with the Jets for 2019) not only saves 90 percent of his salary, he also teaches a class on personal finance at his alma mater, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Early in his NFL career, Copeland traded stock options for a Wall Street firm on the side, and now flips houses and runs his own real estate company as a side hustle (in addition to his Ivy League gig). So Copeland has always had an eye for managing money, and now he brings that knowledge to his undergraduate class (something he wishes he had more training on as he left Wharton).

Copeland, along with his co-instructor, Dr. Brian Peterson, teaches basic financial literacy topics like first time home buying; student loan and credit card debt; buying versus leasing a car; the importance of high-yield savings accounts; the difference between stocks, bonds, and commodities; and how to save for retirement. He even teaches about wealth inequity, drawing parallels between NFL players and Wharton students, who both enter their professional lives with a sudden windfall of money. He urges students not to judge others on their finances, despite the good fortune they will see with their own.

What Copeland teaches, everyone can learn from. These are some of my favorite lessons he shares.

1. Personal finance is like personal health.

As Copeland told Kiplinger's: "Personal finance is a lot like personal health. When problems come up, we tend to push them to the side and hope they go away. But for health and finances, attack your problems." Copeland learned that as a professional athlete; if you have an injury, attack it head on with treatment. If you have a money problem, face it and own it. You'll build your financial skillset in so doing.

And they're skills you keep learning throughout life. When I left corporate and the steady, fat monthly checks behind to become an entrepreneur, I had to deeply reengage in personal finances. You learn as an entrepreneur that money coming in is variable, and certainly not automatic. The comfortable corporate income distanced me from feeling the need for personal finance "health checks." Which brings us to the next point.

2. It's more about what you spend than what you make.

In Copeland's first class, he walks his students through an estimated budget based on what they expect to make in their field and where they expect to make it (to familiarize them with cost of living considerations). He has his students look up their average salary (which many are shocked to find is lower than they thought), and has them add up expected expenses one at a time, including, rent, Netflix, cable, cellular, data, student loan payments, etc.

The exercise shocks a lot of students and creates a reality check on career and lifestyle expectations. As Copeland says, "This isn't a course that is intended to kill their dreams, per se, but to enable those dreams with clear-eyed information."

The act of intentional budgeting, i.e. tracking what goes out and where versus what comes in, is powerful for anyone who earns a living doing anything.

Again, this is a lesson my wife and I took to heart when we began our entrepreneurial venture. When income is variable year to year, knowledge of what you spend becomes dramatically more important. This newfound discipline has my wife and I eliminating a lot of useless expenses that, as Marie Kondo would say, don't bring us important joy.

If you're making a comfortable living, I encourage you to take the time to track exactly where your money is going, even while you're enjoying a nice incoming stream.

3. Teach your kids about your finances.

Copeland encourages his students to interview their parents or mentors about their finances--even if it's uncomfortable for all involved.

I must admit, I never thought about having a detailed discussion with our teenager on our finances, considering it too private, but I'm seriously rethinking that now. I want her to be as financially savvy as possible as she heads off to college.

From conference room to class room to weight room, Brandon Copeland has much to teach. And class is now in session, if you'll run his plays.

Published on: May 17, 2019
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