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NFL Linebacker and Finance Whiz Shares 2 Big Money Mistakes to Avoid

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Brandon Copeland is an NFL linebacker with the soul of an entrepreneur. In fact, he is both — a pro football player and the founder of thriving business enterprises he started while stopping running backs on the gridiron.

He is also a professor of personal finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Copeland, 30, discusses two common financial mistakes that players and general investors alike make and which should be diligently avoided.

One is “keeping up with the Joneses,” he says. 

“For me, it’s just avoiding the entrapment of feeling like you’ve got to be like everyone else from a money standpoint — because statistics say that not everyone is doing the right thing with their money,” he maintains.

For anybody who gets rich fast, especially young NFL players, Copeland has this advice: “Your lifestyle shouldn’t change dramatically overnight just because your bank account is different.”

This past season, he played for the Atlanta Falcons, and before that, the New York Jets and New England Patriots, among others.

He is the grandson of the late Roy Hilton, who was with the NFL from 1965 through 1975.

The heart of Copeland’s business endeavors is Cascade Advisory Group, a financial education organization that creates strategies for corporations and other institutions.

In the interview, Copeland cites a major reason for people’s money mistakes: failure to talk about them openly. They “don’t want to look stupid” and are “embarrassed,” he says.

As for how NFL players manage their money — some of whom have seen their post-football finances fall to pieces — Copeland, a contributing editor to Kiplinger.com, notes that today, players are “more knowledgeable than ever about putting their money to work for them after football.”

Recently, the NFL made available to vested players a generous 401(k) plan. Copeland pegs it as “the best 401(k) plan [he’s] ever heard of in terms of matching over 100%.”

The free agent does not yet know if he’ll return to the Falcons next season or play for a different team.

He has no plans to retire from football in the near future, but he does have plans for retirement.

The focus is going all-out with Cascade. His growing client roster includes Morgan Stanley and Visa.

Also in the plan is expanding his two flourishing real estate development businesses. He will also focus further on Beyond the Basics, a foundation he and his wife, Taylor, founded to help underprivileged youth reach their potential.

Before graduating from the Wharton School with a Bachelor of Science in economics, Copeland interned at UBS, a two-summer stint that he talked about in our recent conversation.

Speaking by phone from Las Vegas, he served up his take both on risk in sports betting and the need to have “longevity with your money,” among other issues.

Here are excerpts from our interview.

THINKADVISOR: What got you so interested in finance and investing?

BRANDON COPELAND: Just as a way to get my money working for me without having to tackle somebody — to put my body through harm — to make some money and have it grow while I was earning another income. That was important to me.

Do you think that NFL players are managing their money better nowadays, or are many still blowing it away?

The media has blown out of proportion players blowing their money. Yes, we do see players who have blown their money. But there are 2,000 players, and there might be stories of maybe 120 that have blown their money.

We get a finger pointed at us because our salaries are public. So if we’re not living the lifestyle that people expect us to be living post-football, they just assume, “Oh, he must be broke now.”

But you don’t know what I have in my bank account. You don’t know what investments I have. You don’t see the full picture of my wealth profile.

Right, but are players in general managing their money better now?

I see more players than ever really thinking of their money as an asset and a tool, and not just letting it sit under the mattress or in a bank account collecting dust.

I think the players are more knowledgeable than ever about investments and putting their money to work for them in life after football.

A lot of players, literally in the locker room, are talking about investing and putting their money to work for them, which definitely wasn’t as prevalent when I originally came into the league.

What do you think of the new NFL pension and 401(k) matching programs available to players who have been with the league long enough to qualify?

It’s great. It’s the best 401(k) plan I’ve ever heard of in terms of matching over 100%. Hopefully, every guy takes full advantage of that and realizes how special it is. It’s outstanding.

Do you think it will help players make better financial decisions? As noted, some bad mistakes were made in the past.

Yes. I think always having that lump sum of cash to stockpile is going to be helpful.

When guys go bankrupt, that’s unfortunate. But I blame the education system: We sit in the classroom learning about tangents and angles and things like that, but we don’t learn about things that [relate directly] to the reason we’re in school — to eventually make money and provide a lifestyle for ourselves.

Ultimately, I hope we get to the point where it’s a trend that guys don’t even need that type of stockpile of cash because they’re already doing right with their money.

What wealth preservation advice do you have for people who get rich quickly?

When you get a lump sum of money, one of the toughest things in the world is to act like you don’t have it. 

One of the things I try to tell young players when they come into the NFL is: “Your lifestyle shouldn’t change dramatically overnight just because your bank account is different.

“There are some things you can treat yourself to, and you deserve the opportunity that your hard work has provided — to a certain extent.

“So if I didn’t need three different cars last week, I don’t need three different cars today. If I didn’t need a mansion two months ago, I don’t necessarily need it today.

“You’ve got to enjoy yourself with what you work hard for, but you’ve got to do it within reason so you have longevity with your money.”

What financial mistakes do players make that general investors should avoid making — and how should they avoid making them?

A lot of people live above their means, and the second [issue] is keeping up with the Joneses — trying to do what your neighbor is doing.

You see a bunch of Mercedes cars in your neighborhood, so now you feel like you’ve got to go buy a Mercedes because that’s what you have to do to act like you belong in the neighborhood.

So for me, it’s just avoiding the entrapment of feeling like you’ve got to be like everyone else from a money standpoint because when you look at statistics, they say that not everyone is doing the right thing with their money.

Sports betting is legal in a number of states now. Is there a financial risk for the average person to wager that way?

It’s always been going on. It’s been a revenue stream for people and leagues.

But yes, I do think there’s a risk. It’s important to have your [finances] in order before you do stuff like that.

If you can afford it and budget for it appropriately, then have your fun if that’s something that makes you tick — something you find fulfillment and enjoyment in. 

But make sure you can afford it and that you’re not doing stuff that you can’t afford. If you can’t afford it, don’t do it.

What prompted you to start teaching financial literacy?

One of my motivations was that there was a disparity between what I was being offered in terms of financial guidance and what my mother, friends and family were being offered. I thought that was wrong. That was the inspiration behind it.

Please elaborate. 

To a certain extent, people are beating down my door trying to tell me how I should invest my 401(k) and how I should think long term about money [and so forth].

But they don’t do that for [people with] average careers because it’s not as quote-unquote attractive.

What sort of financial environment did you grow up in?

My mother works for the Social Security Administration. She was a computer programmer originally, and now she’s a manager in the administration helping with a bunch of things that are way above my head. [He was a summer intern there at age 19.]

My grandmother worked for the government as well. 

My [maternal] grandfather [Roy Hilton] was in the NFL from 1965 through 1975.

Please describe the level of financial guidance your family received. 

Growing up, there was no one who was talking to us about how we should invest, like “Max out your 401(k).” 

Even [today], no one is really asking openly about those types of things — where you can really grow from other people’s experience. 

People don’t share their financial experiences because they don’t want to look stupid and are too embarrassed to share their bad experiences.

So people continue to make those same mistakes.

That’s why I’m creating a conversation about money and gear my Life 101 course and my podcast [“Money Music Culture”] toward people overall — not just athletes, college students or high school students.

But you also teach those groups separately, correct?

Offseason, I teach college students at Penn. And now I’ve also rolled out my course online to high school students for credit on Emile Learning.

You were trading options when you were in college. Tell me about that.

I was a junior and carried that through my first year-and-a-half in the NFL. After a while, I started to get more conservative by having a long-term portfolio.

During college, you interned as an analyst evaluating IPOs at Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisers, and for two summers you were an intern at UBS in New York. What work did you do there?

My first year, I did a few weeks of investment banking and a few weeks of trading. And I was in operations. I did wealth management. 

The next year, they gave you a chance to interview for the spot you actually wanted to have in the bank.

I was a salesman selling stock, pitching people, and coming up with good investment ideas. I worked on a few different desks. 

When you retire from football, what do you plan to do?

I tell people: “I want to do what I want when I want.”

But my Cascade Advisory Group will be [in] full force. We have multiple clients now that we work for on retainer.

And with my real estate [development companies], we have three homes being sold in February. We have a 50-unit building being built, a 37-unit building being built and 16-unit and 12-unit buildings being built in Newark, New Jersey — all 100% affordable housing.

My wife and I have a foundation, Beyond the Basics, and do a lot of work in the communities trying to impact young people. We’ve had a football camp since 2016.

Tell me more about Cascade.

My team and I have corporate partners who are interested in aligning with us. Sometimes people who are making the decisions are a little further removed from the people that they want to impact.

So we partner up with [companies] to make sure that their goals are reached and that the delivery of their messaging, programs, initiatives or events hit home — whether it’s a speaking engagement, content creation or doing a football camp for a partner, as we are in March. 

Will you be back playing with the Atlanta Falcons next season?

I’m a free agent. So I might be with them, but I might be with one of the 31 other teams out there.

It would be nice to go back to Atlanta, but it’s up to [my] agent to figure that out.