As Steph Curry and LeBron James duke it out in the NBA finals, there can only be one winner. Actually, scratch that. They both win…in their bank accounts. That might sound obvious—Curry is reportedly worth $27 million and James, $223 million—but it’s not.
There are plenty of examples of stars making millions and squandering it all: Mike Tyson, for one, famously declared bankruptcy after earning $400 million. Vin Baker earned $100 million playing basketball, and was last seen working at a Starbucks. And by one estimate, nearly 80 percent of former NFL players end up in dire financial straits two years after retirement.
So it’s far from guaranteed that rich athletes stay rich, which means there’s a lot to learn from how financially savvy pros like these 10 standouts handle their money.
This two-time NBA MVP is wildly popular for many reasons—hitting a record 402 three-pointers this year helps—but chiefly because his stardom was far from certain: The guard played for Davidson instead of a big-name college, and was later dramatically pilfered as an endorser from Nike by Under Armour for a mere $4 million. (Though some analysts think he’s worth $14 billion to the clothing company now.)
But true to his image, he’s remained grounded—and doesn’t complain that his “modest” $11 million annual salary makes him the fifth-highest Golden State Warriors player. Before signing his four-year contract in 2012, he carefully weighed his options: Pass, go into free agency and hope old injuries wouldn’t end his career, or sign, become a star and write his own ticket.
“I could’ve had a different perspective and said, ‘I want to get everything that I could get, wait it out, test free agency that next year’—and who knows what would’ve happened? For me, a $44 million contract was plenty for me to be able to provide for my family,” Curry told Yahoo Sports.
Since then, Curry’s made other key financial moves. In September 2015, his Under Armour deal was extended to 2024 and includes an equity stake in the company—which was probably his smartest shot yet.
The lesson: Play the long game. Pay your dues today to further your career (and plump up your bank account) tomorrow. Case in point: By some estimates, Curry’s poised to sign a new contract next year that’s worth $30 million per season.
This athlete needs no introduction, but here’s something you might not know: James signed a lifetime deal with Nike last year initially thought to be worth $500 million. Yet insiders suggest that figure is actually too low. The truth is that James is a multi-million-dollar business who just happens to play basketball. And he has his sights firmly set on becoming a billionaire.
James has always been a different kind of athlete. He cracked into the NBA as a teenager, skipping college and, from early on, displayed great business acumen. In his early 20s, he befriended Warren Buffett, hitting the genius investor up for advice. And in 2006, he set up an investment company named LRMR Marketing, and began structuring clever deals that included both cash and equity. (For example, his equity stake scored him at least $30 million when Apple acquired Beats headphones.)
“It’s impossible to get to a billion dollars by endorsement deals,” Maverick Carter, James’ longtime friend and LRMR partner, told CNNMoney. “The biggest deals only take you so far. It’s how you make money when you’re asleep that’s going to get you there.”
The lesson: It’s not your regular paycheck or side gig that’s likely to make you rich—but your investments and other passive income streams you create for yourself.
Marshawn Lynch spent the last several years as the running back NFL defenders hated to tackle. It wasn’t uncommon to see him carrying three, four, even five players for several yards down the field—and he largely carried the Seattle Seahawks to its first ever Super Bowl win in 2014. But his bruising style almost guaranteed an early retirement for the superstar—and sure enough, the man they call “Beast Mode” announced this offseason he would hang up his cleats at age 29.
How can Lynch be confident that his earnings can support him long-term? While he recently debunked reports suggesting he’s never spent a dime of his nearly $50 million NFL earnings, it’s clear he’s prioritized financial stability.
“If you came from eatin’ cereal with roaches in it before…you wouldn’t want to do that again, right?” Lynch asked Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim in a recent interview. “Once you’ve seen the lowest of the low, you don’t want to go back.”
His strategy for hanging onto his cash is simple: “He lives like he’s broke…He still lives like, ‘Cuz, let me get $10.’ ‘Oooh, $10? Cuz, I don’t know. I don’t got it right now. How much is them? Oooh, $40? No, let me get the $15 ones,’” Lynch’s cousin, rapper Mistah F.A.B., explained. “[But] it’s a beauty because he shows us how to save money, how to keep things going, and he’s a symbol of hope for us.”
The lesson: Don’t spend money if you don’t have to—even if you can afford it.
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