Live Like a Baller: Money Lessons From Steph, LeBron and Other Star Athletes


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.

Steph Curry

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.

LeBron James

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

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.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick is auto racing’s most famous female driver, and she’s among the sport’s top earners, too. She made nearly $8 million on the track in 2015 and another $6 million through a variety of endorsement deals. Given her massive earnings and busy schedule, she’s careful to incorporate expert financial advice and assistance from people she trusts.

She told ESPNW that she employs two private Certified Public Accountants—one just for daily cash flow and tax obligations. “She’s sort of the comptroller of my money,” Patrick said, “so she’s the one who gets all the payments. She gets all the deposits. She’s the one who sets aside taxes and quarterlies and forwards the money I have left over to my financial adviser, who handles my money and invests it.”

The lesson: Know when you need help managing your money—and rely on the right people to help you reach your financial goals. (And even if you hire someone to manage your money, make sure you know where your money is going—and why.)

Rob Gronkowski

In addition to being Tom Brady’s favorite passing target, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is known for his hijinks off the field (namely, his “Gronk-themed cruise”). While in his new book, “It’s Good to Be Gronk,” he regales fans with crazy stories about frat parties and other fun, Gronk is also deadly serious about good financial habits.

“To this day, I still haven’t touched one dime of my signing bonus or NFL contract money,” Gronkowski wrote in his book. “I live off my marketing money and haven’t blown it on any big-money expensive cars, expensive jewelry or tattoos, and still wear my favorite pair of jeans from high school.”

In fact, his money skills are so highly regarded that Gronk teamed up with Capital One to promote #Gronkonomics, a campaign encouraging saving through strategies like setting short-term goals, creating automatic transfers and staying motivated by nicknaming your savings accounts.

The lesson: You can have fun and spend sensibly at the same time.

Ronda Rousey

Becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo in 2008 was only the first barrier Ronda Rousey crashed through in dramatic fashion. As she continued her career in mixed-martial arts, Rousey eventually became a wildly popular UFC women’s champion and claimed to be UFC’s highest-paid athlete—male or female.

Her famous matchup with Holly Holm might have been one of 2015’s most anticipated fights, and she stood to earn $10 million from the bout. (However, she lost in an upset). When asked what she planned to do with the payout, surprisingly, she didn’t reveal extravagant plans to splurge.

“I don’t have a (big) yard; it is a small little thing…I don’t really have many plants except for I have ordered grass to come in so the dog can pee on it,” Rousey told USA Today. “[So] I want to get some vertical gardens. I don’t think they are that expensive, though, but that’s what I want. I am a woman of simple tastes.”

The lesson: Experts say splurging (wisely) when you get a windfall or reach a milestone can actually help keep you motivated to stick to your big money goals. Just don’t go overboard.

A.J. Francis

Though A.J. Francis has spent three years in the NFL as a defensive lineman, you may not have heard of him because he’s only appeared in three regular-season games. If you end up in Florida, however, you might get to know him—as your Uber driver.

Francis is still hoping to get his big NFL break: He bounced from Miami to Seattle last year, and now the former University of Maryland star has signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a one-year deal worth $600,000. But he’s well aware that nothing is guaranteed, and in 2015, he told reporters he’d been moonlighting for $40 to $50 an hour—and practicing his interviewing skills on passengers, in hopes to one day enjoy a broadcasting career.

“I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket. When you have a job, where are you when that job is over?” Francis told The Associated Press. “Just like I’m a world-class athlete, I’m a world-class driver.”

The lesson: It’s always good to have a Plan B, or a side hustle. If you’re working toward a big goal or find yourself in a shaky industry, consider joining the sharing economy to supplement your income.

Daniel Norris

In what was perhaps baseball’s biggest mid-season move last year, the Detroit Tigers traded David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays—for a man who lives in a van. (Seriously!)

Pitcher Daniel Norris climbed steadily through the Blue Jays minor league system quickly after he was drafted back in 2011. The trade opened some doors for Norris, 23, who’s now tearing it up at AAA and threatening to crack the Tigers starting rotation.

But despite a $500,000 annual salary, and a $2 million signing bonus, he’s living on just $800 a month…in the 1978 Volkswagen microbus he calls “Shaggy.”

“I grew up with a simple lifestyle, and I knew going into professional baseball that would be tested. In my mind there’s no need for luxury, or at least society’s sense of the word,” he said to GrindTV. “I consider my life luxurious—I live on a beach with an ocean-front view, hearty meals and hot French-pressed coffee at my disposal. That’s fancy, right?”

The lesson: One of the happiest ways to spend your money (and your life) is to find luxury in simple pleasures and experiences—not lavish things.

Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard has earned just about every accolade a young player could: He’s been the NBA Finals MVP, defensive player of the year (twice) and an All-Star. But despite his accomplishments—and a $94 million contract—Leonard still drives a 20-year-old car. It’s a rehabbed ’97 Chevy Tahoe he calls Gas Guzzler and has owned since high school. “It runs,” Leonard told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, “and it’s paid off.”

His frugality doesn’t stop there: He also loves scoring freebies. As a spokesman for chicken-wing chain Wingstop, he scored coupons for free wings—and reportedly “panicked” when the supply dried up. (The restaurant quickly replenished them.)

“You’d think we were talking about a starving journeyman in the D-League!” says San Diego State trainer Randy Shelton.

The lesson: As super-savers across America attest, two effective ways to live well below your means without feeling deprived are to scout out discounts on things you love, and to keep your car long after it’s paid off.

Mark Teixeira

When Mark Teixeira signed an eight-year contract worth $180 million with the New York Yankees in 2009, and the Yankees won the World Series that year, it seemed like everything fell into place for the all-star first baseman. But the Yanks have not returned to the series since, and Teixeira’s currently on the disabled list. With his contract ending this year, it’s possible Teixeira will be forced to retire—or at least accept a fraction of the $22.5 million he’s earning this year.

Fortunately, Teixeira’s been planning for this. He’s an investor, but a cautious one. And according to Fortune, he’s been working with a wealth management firm, specializing in managing athletes’ money. “We all know that we have to do something after sports, and we have plans, but many of us don’t want to think about it too much yet. I’ve turned down a lot of ideas because they didn’t feel right,” he told Fortune.

“If [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz comes to you with an idea for a new company, you say, ‘Where can I sign?’ But if Jimmy from down the street who has never started a business in his life comes to you and says ‘hand me $5 million,’ you say, ‘Well, let’s talk about this a little more.’ The guys in sports that have lost money, they’re the guys that gave money to Jimmy,” he adds.

The lesson: Unexpected events and change are inevitable. So it’s smart to put a plan in place, start building wealth and set money aside for unanticipated expenses now, even (or especially) when things are going well financially.