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Lessons To Live By From These 13 Rags-to-Riches Athletes

Gabrielle Olya

Professional athletes are notoriously bad with money, with many squandering their wealth due to lavish spending, bad investments, poor money management or a combination of all three. However, some sports stars have managed to avoid the financial downfalls of their peers.

These 13 famous athletes all grew up without money and managed to make wise financial decisions once the big checks started rolling in. Even if you’re not a rich athlete, these rags-to-riches stories can help you handle your own finances better.

Last updated: Nov. 19, 2019

LeBron James

LeBron James was born to a teen mother and spent his childhood moving every few months and missing school often. At times, he lived without heat in the cold winter months in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, ESPN reported.

James has come a long way from his destitute childhood. He’s now a four-time NBA MVP who signed a four-year, $153 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. He’s one of the top-paid athletes in the world, with $89 million in earnings in 2019, Forbes reported.

His Lesson: Don't Be Afraid To Invest

LeBron James has made big money from his salary and endorsement deals, but savvy investments also have played a major role in his wealth. King James’ investments have included Beats Electronics — which paid off big time when Apple bought the company for $3 billion in 2014 — the Liverpool soccer club and Blaze Pizza, Forbes reported. James and partners invested less than $1 million in Blaze Pizza in 2012 and that investment is now worth $25 million, ESPN reported.

You might not have $1 million to invest, but dedicating some of your income to investments is a great way to increase your wealth in the long term.

Victor Cruz

Retired NFL star Victor Cruz grew up in the drug- and gang-ridden Fourth Ward of Paterson, New Jersey, and his mother raised him as a single parent, the New York Post reported. He went on to play for six seasons with the New York Giants and joined ESPN as an NFL analyst in 2018. Cruz is now worth $16 million.

His Lesson: Save as Much as You Can

Many athletes blow their first big paycheck, but Cruz did exactly the opposite. In 2010, he signed a three-year, $1.22 million contract with the New York Giants and put all of his first paycheck in the bank.

“That first check was probably the largest check I’ve ever seen with my own eyes at that time,” he said on “Kneading Dough.” “So I saved it. I wanted to make sure that this isn’t the last check that I receive. I wanted to make sure every check from here on out I saved and multiplied.” 

You probably won’t be able to save an entire paycheck, but it’s always a good idea to save as much as you can. Ideally, set up an automatic payment from each paycheck to go to your savings to build up a healthy emergency fund. Create other funds for long-term goals, such as buying a house.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and more than $92 million in career prize money. But before she was making millions, Williams grew up in crime-ridden Compton, south of Los Angeles. She practiced her game on public tennis courts littered by syringes, the Independent reported, and was raised in a two-bedroom house with seven people, she told “Kneading Dough.”

Her Lesson: Learn From Your Mistakes

When Williams earned her first $1 million check, she deposited it right in the bank. However, the tennis superstar admitted that she wasn’t always as responsible with her money.

“Since I was a teenager I’ve made every financial decision in my life, and I’ve had to learn how to make good ones and how to make bad ones, and it helps you make better ones,” she said on “Kneading Dough.”

Even if you make a bad financial decision, learn from it and make a better one next time.

Get Help: 14 Completely Free, Easy-To-Use Budget Templates

Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard grew up in Riverside, California, and when he was a junior in high school, his father was fatally shot at a car wash. Leonard played through his grief, and he found basketball to be his refuge during tough times.

“He played like nothing ever happened the rest of the year,” his high school coach, Tim Sweeney Jr., told the Los Angeles Times.

Leonard currently plays for the Los Angeles Clippers and is worth $35 million.

His Lesson: Use Coupons

As an endorser of Wingstop, Leonard received coupons for free wings. Despite signing a $94 million contract in 2016, Leonard went into a panic when he lost his coupons, Sports Illustrated reported. Fortunately, Wingstop replenished his supply.

Before making any purchase, check to see if there are any coupons or promo codes available. We all can benefit from extra savings.

Marshawn Lynch

Retired NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, aka Beast Mode, grew up in Oakland, California, the son of a single mother and a father who was in prison. Lynch told Sports Illustrated that he grew up in a rough neighborhood where drugs and prostitution were prevalent, and that it wasn’t uncommon for him to find a roach in his cereal.

Lynch went on to become one of the NFL’s highest-paid celebrity endorsers, according to Forbes, with partners that included Nike, Skittles, Pepsi and Microsoft. He has a net worth of $30 million.

His Lesson: Money Isn't Everything

Lynch told Sports Illustrated that although he appreciates his new and improved lifestyle, money isn’t the most important thing to him.

You’ve gotta understand where I came from, Baby Dawg. Money wasn’t s—,” he said. “It was the love and respect that I had for my family and for my peers [that mattered]. Let’s say I went and got all that wealth — and then I had none of my family, none of my friends, none of my peers to enjoy that with. What would it have been [for]?” 

While money is a necessary part of life, it’s never a replacement for fulfilling relationships.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is the second-highest-paid athlete in the world, reaching $109 million in earnings in 2019, according to Forbes. His current deal with Juventus is worth $64 million annually, and he also rakes in big bucks through his endorsement deals.

Ronaldo has reached a level of wealth most people can only dream of, but his origins were truly humble. He grew up in Santo Antonio, one of the poorest communities in the Portuguese city of Funchal. His mother worked as a cook and his father worked as a gardener before dying of alcoholism when Ronaldo was 20, the Mirror reported.

His Lesson: Give Back

Ronaldo isn’t just one of the richest athletes — he’s also one of the most charitable. The soccer player ranked No. 1 on Do Something’s Athletes Gone Good 2015 ranking, thanks to an $83,000 donation to a 10-year-old fan in need of brain surgery and a $165,000 donation to a cancer center in Portugal. Ronaldo has also used his fame to speak out for a number of causes, including childhood hunger, obesity and biodiversity.

If you reach a point in your career where you’re able to give back, follow Ronaldo’s lead and do some good by donating to causes that you care about.

Ryan Broyles

Ryan Broyles played three seasons with the Detroit Lions and scored a $3.6 million rookie contract in 2012. The former NFL player didn’t grow up with millions, however. Broyles told The Players’ Tribune that growing up, “there wasn’t a lot of extra money to go around,” and he started paying for his basketball camps and tournaments on his own when he was 8 years old with money he earned from mowing lawns.

His Lesson: Set a Budget and Stick To It

Broyles told The Players’ Tribune that he used his signing bonus to pay down his debts, and then worked with financial advisors to come up with a budget that would enable him to live off of his NFL money for the rest of his life. They settled on a budget of $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year (after taxes).

That’s what I was spending and I was happy with my standard of living, so why did I need anything more than that?” he wrote. “The rest of the money went into the stock market and other investments for later on down the road when those NFL checks stopped coming in.” 

Take the time to set a budget based on your fixed expenses and your income. It’s definitely OK to budget for fun and entertainment, but factor these expenses into your overall budget — and then stick to it.

Caron Butler

Retired NBA player Caron Butler has a true rags-to-riches story. Butler grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and started dealing drugs when he was a preteen to make money. At 15, he was arrested after police found a gun and illegal drugs in his school locker. After he got out of his juvenile correction facility, Butler was determined to turn his life around. He ended up playing college basketball at the University of Connecticut and played 14 seasons in the NBA. He’s now worth $26 million.

His Lesson: Take Advantage of Networking Opportunities

Butler told Sports Illustrated that nagging injuries made him face the reality of life after the NBA, and what that would be like financially.

“You think you can play forever and when the injuries start, you get a real, clear-glass perspective on your life,” he said. “What’s next? What are you gonna do with all that time?”

So Butler decided to take advantage of opportunities to make money off the court, including investing in Burger King franchises and networking with successful people whose paths he crossed, including Mark Wahlberg. Butler told Sports Illustrated that he asked to pick Wahlberg’s brain while the actor-slash-entertainment mogul was sitting courtside at a 2012 Los Angeles Clippers game. In 2019, Wahlberg signed on to executive produce Butler’s biopic, “Tuff Juice.”

Although you might not be rubbing elbows with the Mark Wahlbergs of the world, there are plenty of people you will encounter in your life who could open doors for you in your career. Be sure to seize those networking opportunities when you can.

Draymond Green

Basketball pro Draymond Green grew up in Saginaw, Michigan — a city that has a violent crime rate that’s more than three times the national average and where a third of the residents live below the poverty level. He credits his family with keeping him focused on his goals.

“I wouldn’t let him quit,” his mother, Mary Babers-Green, told “E:60” on ESPN. “I wanted to push my kids to do what it was they thought they could do. So every time he got off track, I got him back on course.”

Green is now playing his eighth season with the Golden State Warriors and is worth $20 million.

His Lesson: Ask For Help

Fresh out of college, Green was earning an $850,000 salary — more than he knew what to do with or how to manage. So he found a team of advisors to help him reach both his short- and long-term goals.

“I wanted to go with someone who thought bigger picture — [beyond] just how to manage this NBA player’s money,” he told “Kneading Dough,” adding he wanted to work with “someone who’s managing a billionaire’s money, because maybe they’re doing something a little bit different than I am.” 

Even if you’re not making $850,000 a year, it can be helpful to meet with a financial advisor to help you reach your own financial goals.

Get Started: 20 Ways To Save Money Fast

Devan Kline

Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Devan Kline grew up in a poor neighborhood in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was raised in a broken home where violence, drugs and alcohol abuse were common. His father was in and out of jail, and his mother abandoned the family when Kline was just 13. Kline found his escape through sports, and he eventually earned a spot on the Giants roster.

His Lesson: It's All About the Hustle

Kline’s time with the Giants was brief, but he was able to land on his feet after his pro sports career ended. Along with his wife, Kline founded Burn Boot Camp, which now has more than 225 franchise locations and totaled approximately $60 million in sales in 2018, Forbes reported.

Kline credits his success with his willingness to work hard, plan ahead and hustle.

As a professional player, I got up earlier, trained longer, studied more and hustled harder than everyone, including my own teammates,” he told Thrive Global. “Most were far more talented, but never beat me in a drill, out trained me or had stronger belief. If you hustle and always think one pitch ahead of everyone else, you can play with the best players on the planet. That is the same approach I have taken to my national fitness franchise Burn Boot Camp.” 

Alfred Morris

NFL running back Alfred Morris grew up in Pensacola, Florida. He was one of seven boys, and they slept two to three in a room.

Morris started his NFL career with the Washington Redskins and later played for the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. He has career earnings of $7.7 million.

His Lesson: Don't Buy Flashy Things Just Because You Can

Despite his thriving NFL career, Morris continues to drive a 1991 Mazda 626, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in August 2019. He purchased the vehicle for $2 from his pastor during his junior year at Florida Atlantic University and has held onto it throughout the years.

“It just keeps me grounded — where I came from and all the hard work for me to get to this point,” Morris told the Redskins’ website

Driving older cars and living in a modest home are two of the biggest ways to save on living costs. Just because you can afford something more expensive, doesn’t mean you should buy it.

Daniel Norris

Major league pitcher Daniel Norris grew up in a small town in Tennessee, the son of a hardworking bike shop owner. In 2011, he scored a $2 million signing bonus with the Toronto Blue Jays, and he just wrapped up his fifth season with the Detroit Tigers.

His Lesson: Live Below Your Means

Norris famously lived out of a 1978 Volkswagen camper van that he bought with his signing bonus, and continues to live extremely frugally. He was used to living simply so he gave the majority of his income to financial advisors to invest and lived off of $800 a month, ESPN reported.

“I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” Norris told ESPN. 

Living well below your means is always a good idea. You never know when your financial situation might change.

Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose, who plays for the Detroit Pistons, grew up in the Englewood section of Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood is one of the most crime-ridden in the country, but Rose’s older brothers helped keep him out of trouble, the New York Post reported. By middle school, Rose was gaining attention for his basketball skills, and in 2008, he was selected by the Chicago Bulls as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. In 2017, Rose was one of the highest-paid athletes, thanks to his five-year, $94 million contract with the New York Knicks and a $10 million-a-year contract he signed with Adidas, Forbes reported.

 

His Lesson: Take a Pay Cut if It Will Get You Closer to Your Goals

In 2017, Rose signed a one-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers that gave him the opportunity to play alongside LeBron James and have a shot to compete for an NBA title. He had a more lucrative offer from the Los Angeles Lakers, Forbes reported, but he chose to play with a team that would get him closer to his career goals — even though this meant taking a drastic 90% pay cut.

In your own career, don’t just choose the job that pays the most money. You spend most of your life working, so your job should be something you find fulfilling that moves you closer to your ultimate career goals.

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