This is the fourth in a four-part series examining the intricacies of being an NFL wife. Part 1 on the struggle to maintain an identity can be found here. Part 2 on the rules of being an NFL wife can be found here. Part 3 on the exploration of love, football and infidelity can be found here.
In 2014, the median household income in the United States was $53,657. The same year, the median salary for an NFL player was roughly $770,000. But despite that drastic difference, money issues are as prevalent in the NFL as they are in many other American homes. Quantifying what it means to have “enough” is relative and someone else will always have more than you. I remember when a friend retired in his early thirties with over $15 million in savings, a veteran NFL wife asked me, “What are they going to do now?”
“Whatever they want,” I answered. “They have more than $15 million invested, so they won’t ever have to work again.”
“But they can’t retire off of that amount. Not for the rest of their lives,” she answered. In her mind, that could never be enough.
Keeping up with the Joneses, which has been shown to increase happiness levels, takes on a whole new meaning in the NFL when the Joneses may be Julio Jones who makes a base salary of more than nine million dollars a year. An NFL locker room may be one of the only places where teammates doing roughly the same job receive such disparate checks each week.
Multi-million dollar NFL contracts fuel a common misconception that most NFL players are multi-millionaires. In 2016, the rookie minimum salary is $450,000/year. At nearly half a million dollars, even the poorest paid NFL players appear rich. But, after taxes, even with three years in the league, many successful NFL players will walk away from the game having made less than $800,000 after taxes. For those who buy nice cars and houses along the way, or those who have family or friends on payroll, that money can go fast. So the idea that all NFL players and families can afford to live luxurious lifestyles just isn’t the case.
Back when Craig posed for a picture holding his first NFL check—his signing bonus of $60,000—he was grinning widely. “I feel so rich,” he told me. Just months later, he came home and told me he felt poor when he saw his teammate’s $250,000 paycheck next to his own $10,000 check. Likewise, our two-bedroom apartment that felt like a castle when we moved in felt like the slums compared to the 10,000 square foot castles on the water where his teammates lived. Craig’s rookie salary of $230,000 felt like riches to us. In reality, Craig was one of the lowest paid players on the team. Some seasoned veterans, admittedly feeling sorry for him, even offered Craig their hand-me-down custom tailored suits. No matter, we loved them. For years, Craig proudly wore the Gucci suits with his teammate’s name sewn on the inside and custom-made dress shirts with his teammate’s initials on the cuffs.
Higher salaries don’t come with better money management skills. In fact, we had friends in the league who made over $2 million/year but lived paycheck-to-paycheck despite, or maybe because of, living in a luxurious home and driving $100,000+ vehicles.
Like so many others, Craig and I fell victim to living beyond our means. Like when we would gather with players and their families after big wins. Being a part of the gathering provided a chance for team bonding and friendship when friends are sometimes hard to find. It could also mean splitting the bill with teammates who have different financial realities. At one particular dinner at a top-of-the-line steakhouse during Craig’s rookie year, we sat with a half-a-dozen of his teammates and their wives around a large mahogany table. When we opened the menus, we were aghast to read the prices, so we opted to share a baked potato and some broccoli before hitting a drive-through on our way home.
Around us, Craig’s more-established millionaire teammates ordered appetizers, large steaks, and expensive bottles of wine. At the end of the night, while Craig’s stomach rumbled with hunger, we heard one of the highest-paid players on the team suggest that each couple “just throw in $400” to cover the bill. I started to protest to Craig, “But we only...” he squeezed my leg under the table and whispered, “It’s okay,” as he counted out his cash, everything he had in his wallet, and threw it in the center of the table. On our way out of the restaurant, the manager asked if he could take a picture of the group for their celebrity wall. Craig and I made a pact that night that we would never see that picture again.
Some players grow up in financial destitution. When they reach the NFL, some go from not knowing where they will get their next meal to having millions of dollars overnight. An NFL wife, who grew up in an upper middle-class home, told me the story of meeting her husband’s family for the first time:
“I didn’t know what poor really meant until I saw where he was from. The first time he brought me home to meet his family, I cried for everything that he had made it out of and for the family members of his who were still there. They didn’t have running water or electricity. They didn’t have enough to eat. His mom was taking care of his two siblings and their children. His brother was in jail and his sister was selling her body so that she could feed her children. I could only imagine the guilt that he must have felt pulling up in the new SUV that I encouraged him to buy. He had hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank and his family had nothing. After we were married we bought his mom a new house and a car. We’ll always support them because they don’t have any other way to make it out of where they are.”
Regardless of the amount of money in one’s bank account, NFL couples are still susceptible to financial disagreements. An NFL wife called me distraught one afternoon when her bankcard was declined. As a result of her prenuptial agreement with her husband, they shared five million dollars in a joint account. His personal account was funded with millions more.
A little over a year into their marriage, she was shopping when her bank card was declined. “The account is empty,” she told me, “and I have to wait four more days until he gets another check before I can even go grocery shopping. When I told him I couldn’t buy groceries, he reminded me that it was only four more days until he got paid again. That’s four days that his wife and child would be broke, but he has millions in his own account. The truth is that I would gladly trade my rich husband for the same man who was poor,” she admitted. “His money has done nothing but hurt our relationship.”
Another NFL wife vented to me at one of the games because her husband had just purchased a $20,000 painting. “It’s an ugly painting and it cost us $20,000!” she exclaimed. “He could have at least asked me how I felt about the purchase. That’s a lot of money.”
Earlier the same day, a non-NFL wife friend from home vented to me that her husband bought a Big Mac on his way home from work. “What was he thinking? We don’t have that kind of money right now!” she exclaimed. The issue and the feelings expressed by the two women struck me as the same, regardless of the price tags attached to the items. No amount of money ever seems to be enough in a marriage in which economic and financial “rules” have not been mutually negotiated.
TV documentaries and magazine articles have been written about NFL players who lose millions. It has been estimated that 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of leaving the game. Notable players who have had financial meltdowns include Deuce McAllister who had earned more than $70 million as an NFL player and went on to file for bankruptcy protection for a car dealership he owns, Mark Brunell, who made more than $50 million and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010, and Raghib (Rocket) Ismail who made more than $18 million and lost millions due to what he called “total ignorance.” JaMarcus Russell, who had a guaranteed $40 million dollar contract, had his Oakland mansion fall into foreclosure (he eventually closed a deal on it to avoid losing it).
Perhaps it is stories like those that breed fear among NFL players and their wives about their own financial futures, leaving them wondering how they will sustain their income after football.
I still remember what I did after having that conversation with a wife who did not see how a couple could live on $15 million. When I got home, I pulled up a retirement calculator on the computer. With $15 million invested at just three percent, they could spend more than $450,000 a year without running out of money. The amount seemed livable to me. However, considering the lifestyle of my friends who had spent more than $5 million in less than two years of marriage, she was right. The amount couldn’t possibly be enough.