WNBA Hall of Famer Swin Cash: Not buying my dream Mercedes was 'one of my best financial decisions'

"A big lesson I had to learn was understanding the difference between needs and wants."

Swintayla "Swin" Cash, former forward of New York Liberty of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, May 1, 2017.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

When Invesco sought to create a financial literacy program as part of their partnership with the NCAA, they went straight to the source: They not only polled students from across the country but also assembled a board of advisors including current and former student-athletes.

Among them was four-time WNBA All-Star and current vice president of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans Swin Cash. Invesco's finished product — a game released earlier this week called "How Not to Suck at Money" – couldn't have come at a better time for students-athletes, she says, given new rules allowing them to profit from their own names, images, and likenesses.

"With students-athletes having access to more opportunities than I had when I was in college, it seemed like perfect timing," she says. "Understanding what [Invesco] was trying to accomplish and having a voice in the creation of the game were super-important to me."

One of the features of the game that Cash says she pushed for was its real-world tone — presenting players with money dilemmas that young folks encounter on campus every day. And Cash should know: Her journey from college star to seasoned pro to NBA exec featured its share of challenges, temptations, and great advice from mentors.

Grow caught up with her following the release of the game to talk about her choice not to buy her "dream car" (a Mercedes), what the Marvel movies can teach viewers about money, and more.

'One of my best financial decisions'

When Cash was drafted into the WNBA, she found herself in a common situation for recent grads. "When I came out, I was drafted no. 2, and I was making $65,000," she says. "My first thought was, 'I wanna get that dream car. I want that Mercedes.'"

But before making the purchase, Cash pumped the proverbial brakes. "I remembered advice I had gotten from my Nana about the importance of having a home," she said. "Plus I knew that vehicles depreciated in value."

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So she skipped the Mercedes. Instead, she used her money to fund the down payment on a townhouse outside in the suburbs of Pittsburgh near where she grew up.

"It's not like when I sold it I made a bunch of money," she says. Still, by avoiding sinking a big portion of her income on a car that was likely to decline in value, she averted what could have been a major blow to her future finances. "That was probably one of my best decisions," she says.

'A big lesson I learned' about spending

When it came to navigating her finances as a young person, "I had some great mentors, but I still stumbled myself here and there," Cash says. "A big lesson I had to learn was understanding the difference between needs and wants."

It's an important distinction for young people to grasp. The popular 50-30-20 rule prescribes that spenders allocate 50% of their budget to essential expenses such as rent, utilities, and food, 30% to "wants," such as going out with friends or upgrading to a new phone, and the remainder on building savings, paying down debt, and investing.

By overspending on your wants, you can throw other parts of your financial plan out of whack. One common upshot is that people don't sock enough money away for their future, or save enough to cover unexpected expenses. Another potential consequence, credit card debt, is a common problem among college students, with 40% saying they carried a balance of $1,000 or more, according to a survey from AIG Retirement Services and EVERFI.

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To keep your budget in line, Cash says its important to recognize the things that you really value. "I love to travel and see the world. That's something that's a life experience more than the bag and shoes," she says. "Young people get this idea that they have to spend for the here and now for social media. It's all about instant gratification. But think about the things you really want."

The best advice she got about planning for the future

Like all athletes, Cash knew that her career would eventually come to an end and that she had to plan for a financially stable future. She turned to her father for advice.

"I knew the air was going to come out of the ball. My pops told me I needed to fully fund my 401(k) every single year," she says. "I almost grabbed my pearls!"

For someone making $65,000 a year to start, a maximum 401(k) contribution was indeed a lot of money. But Cash looks at her financial situation now and understands where her dad was coming from. "Now it's almost 20 years from when I got drafted, and I look at my 401(k) account and think, 'My god, this is what you were talking about!'"

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By investing early and often, Cash maximized her chances that compounding growth in her investment portfolio would boost her wealth over time. And while she recognizes that not everyone can max out their retirement contributions, Cash found doing it a good lesson in financial discipline and thinking ahead.

"You have to make a commitment now for the future, for the end game," she says. "It's like the Marvel movies. Wherever you are now, that's the first movie. You always want to be thinking about getting to that end game, and how that's going to play out financially."

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