I think about money through the same lens that I think about everything else. It starts with hard work, discipline, and applying yourself in whatever you choose to do so that you are able to build value in yourself and in what you bring to an organization. That value in turn creates opportunities personally and professionally.
In the same way, putting your money to work will build value and create opportunities for you and those around you. Taking care of your money enables you to maintain and sustain the value of your work and gives you options in the future.
But taking care of your money doesn’t happen by itself. It takes work, which is why financial literacy is important.
Personally, I’ve always tried to focus on, and build, the value that I can provide. I believe that the more value you provide, the more valuable you become, and that should translate into financial rewards. It creates a sort of snowball effect. It’s something I’ve tried to live by for as long as I can remember.
I’m definitely not saying that everything will work out the way you expect. It probably won’t. But if you make the investment in yourself, you will get rewarded in some way — it will lead to opportunities. What those opportunities are may not initially be clear, but at the very least, you will have the value of your experience.
It may be surprising to some people, but playing in the NFL wasn’t actually a dream of mine as a kid. In fact, I didn’t even watch the NFL when I was little. But when I started playing, not only did I love it, I was good at it and I became valuable to my team. It also became clear that football could help me get an education.
“ All young people, not just athletes, should be familiar with the basics of personal finance. ”
Football is not just a great game. For me, it was, and still is, a means to an end. My first year in college, I got $8,000 in financial aid to play football. Hardly a full ride. But it reinforced the idea that the more I could deliver on the field, the more I could receive in return. Let me also be clear. I played for a Division II school and I was well aware that the odds of me playing in the NFL were slim at best. So I also immersed myself in school, because education was another way of investing in myself and in future opportunities.
As professional athletes, our playing windows are short for many reasons, and so is the opportunity to make money. That means it’s particularly important to not only protect your money, but make it work for you and grow for the future. So my approach to money is the same as my approach to everything else in life.
Words to live by
As a public figure, I’m often asked what advice I would give to my younger self. Obviously, that’s a huge question. But here’s what I would say, and these ideas apply not just to money matters, but to life in general.
- First, and most importantly, get educated: I’m not just saying that because my mom was a teacher. I’m a firm believer in the idea of progress and learning. I’m always thinking about where I am and where I’m going — from point A to point B. Never stop putting in the effort to learn. Education is something that you can rely on your whole life. All young people, not just athletes, should be familiar with the basics of personal finance: credit scores; interest rates; borrowing money, taxes — and how all of these things can impact your financial security.
- Second, diversify your value: The more skills you have, the more value you can provide in different ways, which increases the options and opportunities that will come to you. That’s not to say you can’t have a primary focus. As an athlete trying to become a professional, I needed to completely dedicate myself to football — to make the team, to stay on the team, to increase my value to the team. I am still laser-focused on that. Yet at the same time, I’m constantly out there learning, engaging with people around me, evaluating opportunities.
- Third, meet and surround yourself with good people: Lots of people. There are a lot of experts out there who can help, but there are also people who pretend to be experts and may not have your best interests in mind. The only way to be sure you are working with the right people is to get out and meet different people, get their perspectives, learn what they know. Nobody can know everything, and as individuals, we need help. Creating a professional, trustworthy team of advisers, especially financial advisers, is invaluable.
Austin Ekeler is a running back for the Los Angeles Chargers. Ekeler currently is featured in “Navigating big decisions,” an episdode of Level Up, a financial literacy campaign from wealth manager UBS and Players TV. Follow him on Twitter @AustinEkeler.