Personal Finance

Money lessons from professional ballers

Game-changing financial plays

For many professional athletes, it's an almost overnight leap from no income and relative anonymity to fame and nine-figure fortunes. That's something at least a few of the basketball players hitting the backboard during this year's March Madness tournament may be experiencing soon.

Of course, that won't be the case for most other college grads. But many millennials will see a big jump in their annual incomes in their 20s. And many of the same financial lessons apply, regardless of whether you're making thousands or millions.

The key is to have a sense of awareness of what you have, said Erika Safran, a certified financial planner in New York City. "Pro athletes suddenly have a lot of money they didn't have before and they aren't trained to think about money, so they don't visualize allowing for a healthier financial future."

The same applies for many millennials when they graduate college and start pulling in a paycheck. "Having a sense of awareness of what you have and don't have and what you are spending is huge," Safran said.

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She recommends making a budget of your monthly expenses that includes essentials and a set amount you plan to save, and sticking to it. Apps like BudgetPulse, Mint and Wally can help you track your spending and progress toward your savings goals.

Andrew Weber | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

Once you start making more money, it is easy to fall into the trap of spending more, too. That's also true of professional athletes, many of whom have demonstrated the potential pitfalls of not planning.

In a 2009 review of athlete finances, Sports Illustrated estimated that 60 percent of former NBA players file for bankruptcy within five years of retirement, a figure that has been widely reported since then. The National Basketball Players Association disputes the number--executive director Michele Roberts said "there is no evidence or underlying factual basis to support it." But the players association doesn't offer any of its own statistics on player bankruptcies. ("We are constantly working to promote financial literacy and responsibility among players," said Greg Taylor, the NBA's senior vice president of player development, noting that the NBA's rookie transition program includes a comprehensive financial literacy component.)

Regardless of whether you're making five figures or eight, Safran said overspending is a common problem. "I see it among young people all of the time."

The antidote? Put some of your money to work for you immediately, said David Mendels, director of planning at Creative Financial Concepts in New York. Set some aside as an emergency fund (three to six months' worth of expenses is a good target) and make sure you're contributing to a retirement account as soon as you're eligible. That way, some of your money can start gaining interest right away, and you can make sure you'll have enough money down the road.

"What happens if your car breaks down or you lose your job?" asked Mendels. "Put some money aside right away. It's job is to be there for that sudden expense."

When it comes to investing, you can also take a cue from basketball. Think of your portfolio as a basketball team, with a lot of different players. Don't just rely on one star stock. Diversify with a range of investments that include stocks and bonds.

Advisors recommend consistently investing in one or more diversified funds. ETFs and index funds are good places to start as they carry low fees.

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Your exact investment mix will depend on your time frame and your individual goals, but the more diversified you are, the better the chances you'll end up with a bank account worthy of a baller.

CLARIFICATION: This version has been updated to include the original source for estimated bankruptcy filings among former NBA players and to include the NBA's efforts to promote financial literacy.