Live like an NFL player, and… retire… early?

What images come to mind when you imagine living the life of an NFL athlete?  Mansions, Bentleys, cocktails in the grotto?  Maybe Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash?

Stories of bankrupt professional athletes make frequent headlines.   Players who have earned tens of millions often have nothing to show for it.  Star players like Dan Marino, Terrell Owens, Warren Sapp, and Clinton Portis are among the many headliners. 

The stories of the bankrupt “rich” aren’t limited to the NFL, or just to professional athletes.  There are the lottery winners, the internet millionaires, heirs and heiresses, etc…  

So… how exactly does one live like an NFL player on a physician’s salary and not go bankrupt?  What’s this crazy talk about retiring early with that ludicrous lifestyle?  Note that I didn’t say live like most NFL players; that would be silly.  You get to live like an NFL player, as in one, although you’ll have at least a few to choose from.

In recent years, popular media has delivered a few stories about NFL players whose way of life represent a departure from the stereotypical life of indulgence.  Ryan Broyles, a free agent wide receiver who  spent his last few years with the Detroit Lions, has had a budget of about $60,000 a year for him and his wife despite signing a multimillion dollar contract as a rookie in 2012. 

Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard made heads turn with his modest apartment near the practice facility.  He didn’t buy a car with his $2.2 million dollar signing bonus.  His girlfriend’s mom’s minivan was good enough if he needed to get somewhere. 

The most publicized among the NFL’s frugal players are on the Washington Redskins roster.  Rising star quarterback Kirk Cousins drove a conversion van and shared an apartment with his teammate Tom Compton for three years.

Redskin Ryan Kerrigan uses a tiny portion of his $57.5 million contract to pay his share of the rent (yes, he has a roommate), and like me, he drives a Chevy.  Running back Alfred Morris, who started his career with 3 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, famously drives a 1991 Mazda 626, and sometimes a bicycle.

I’d be willing to bet there are dozens and perhaps hundreds of other NFL players whose spending habits are similar, but their stories haven’t made the rounds online.  Personally, I find it fascinating that guys making millions are living like the millionaire next door, but most readers aren’t going to find another frugal footballer story to be all that sexy.  “Look who’s living like a normal person!” isn’t very good clickbait.  So we mostly get stories about lavish spending and tragically broke former players.

Money going up in smoke?


What’s going on here?  Nothing too spectacular, really.  Just some exceptionally well-paid dudes living like normal men.  Just as the stories of ridiculous excess and eventual demise extend far beyond the ranks of NFL players, so do the stories of pragmatic and even downright cheap living.  The Toronto Blue Jays top pitching prospect Daniel Norris spent spring training in a freaking van in a  Walmart parking lot.  No mention of whether or not said van was “down by the river” a la Chris Farley’s classic motivational speaker, Matt Foley. 

While it’s not a new concept, a lifestyle that includes living below your means seems to be catching on as a movement in the internet age.  The “Bogleheads” mostly embrace the concept as part of a comprehensive plan to financial success.  The financial independence driven “Mustachians” are discovering how frugality can lead to a more fulfilling life, and potentially, an early escape from the workforce. 

The deft NFL player knows that his career and its high income may very well be short-lived.  While a few of the best may last fifteen years or more, a three to five year career is much more common.  With a minimum salary of about $450,000, any player who makes a roster has the opportunity to set aside a decent chunk of change if he can stand to live and spend like an average American.  With all the pressures and expectations from family, friends, and teammates, I imagine that is no easy task.  I have a lot of respect for those who resist the usual trappings that accompany success and fame. 

As a physician, you may feel similar pressures, albeit on a smaller scale than a star athlete with a multimillion dollar contract.  Nevertheless, when you become a “real doctor”, you may find others expecting you to pick up the tab, to buy the big house, to drive a fancy car.  You’ve got choices to make, and those choices you make early on will have a large impact on your finances and your life for years to come.

I would suggest you consider making some of the same choices as Ryan Broyles, Giovanni Bernard, and those frugal Redskins.  Don’t be a Terrell Owens.   You never know how long your career might last. 


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