Brandon Copeland knows a thing or two about dealing with short-term financial uncertainty. It wasn't long after reaching his dream of playing professional football that Copeland learned being an NFL journeyman comes with both highs and lows.
"In 2013, I got a call from the Baltimore Ravens saying, 'Hey, we're gonna sign you.' And technically at that point in time, I was a millionaire, right?" he says. He had a three-year contract for over $1 million. But, he says, "I saw 24,000 of those dollars before being fired for the first time."
Unlike many of his fellow players, Copeland, who now plays for the New England Patriots, came into the league with some real financial bona fides. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics, interned at investment bank UBS, and eventually started his own real estate investing business. These days, when he's not chasing down opponents on the gridiron, he's teaching a course at his alma mater referred to as "Life 101" about how to handle your finances.
Here are Copeland's four rules for building a secure financial future even in uncertain times.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
"The first step everyone needs to do, if you're listening right now: Go figure out how much it costs you to live on a monthly basis," Copeland says. "Because then that gives you a foundation and a baseline to work from."
Once you have an understanding of your monthly budget, you can figure out how to put your money to work and balance different financial goals. Start by building an emergency fund, Copeland says. Most experts recommend you aim to sock away six months' worth of basic living expenses.
"The next thing I would say is getting to the point you're paying down your debt or your debt is paid off," he says. "And then after that, as early as you can, starting to put money away and receive the benefit of compound interest over time, and just letting the market work for you."
For Copeland, the number on his first check came as a bit of a shock. After taxes were taken out, the remainder was much lower than he had anticipated. "I remember calling my accountant and being like, 'What happened?'" he says. "I've worked plenty of jobs before, so I understand taxes, but this is more than anyone ever estimated or told me about."
Luckily for Copeland, he had planned to be responsible with his paycheck, knowing that his contract wasn't guaranteed. "I wish I could tell you I went to the club and blew it all," he says. "But really I was pocketing as much cash as possible so that I could eventually start to create assets."
Copeland understands that, though lucrative, NFL careers are finite. To find long-term financial stability, you have to manage your money with an eye toward the future. So he and his wife are investing for later on in life.
"We're fortunate to be making a lot of money now," he says. "But for us it's about, we want to live like this forever. How do we make sure we're allocating money to do that?"
How you invest will look different depending on your goals and financial situation. If you're saving for retirement, considering investing in your workplace retirement plan or in an individual retirement account. Parents can save for their children's education through a 529 account. You can invest for midterm goals, too, such as paying for a wedding or making a down payment on a house.
Navigating the tricky world of personal finance becomes much tougher if you're not willing to have conversations about your finances, Copeland says.
"My goal is to spread this information [about financial literacy] to others so we can normalize conversations about money," he says. "If you took a poll of all of your neighbors, there's probably 50% of you making the same exact financial mistakes, whether it's issues with your credit, the homebuying process, or something else."
Make sure you and your family are on the same page about your finances, and that you're being open to a spouse or partner whose financial philosophies might differ from yours.
"We should be sitting at the dinner table and not judging each other based off of the money decisions that we're making, but sharing the wins and the losses that we've had so that none of us ever make the same financial mistake."
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