Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Going For Broke

After working slightly later than usual, I left the office, got some dinner to go, walked into my apartment and flipped the TV to ESPN. Standard operating procedure. But SportsCenter wasn't on. ESPN was televising another one of its excellent 30 For 30 documentaries. This particular film was about professional athletes blowing away their fortune through a mix of outlandish spending, laughably corrupt "investment opportunities", parasitic friends and family, and gold digging girlfriends and wives.

People who follow sports know the most egregious examples. Mike Tyson, Terrell Owens, Evander Holyfield, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Vick. These athletes earned tens of millions of dollars in career earnings and endorsements and found themselves declaring bankruptcy after their careers ended.

Most of these athletes grew up in working class families, played sports at an early age, and by the time they were in their early 20s, signed contracts worth millions of dollars. The money they were dealing with were unfathomable sums of money that they weren't used to having. Giving that much money to a financially illiterate person is usually going to end poorly.

"A white man gets wealthy, he builds Wal-Marts and makes other white people have some motherfucking money. A brother gets rich, he buys some motherfucking jewelry, okay? Do you know what the fuck I'm talking about? I ain't talking about rich, I'm talking about wealth. Wealth is passed down from generation to generation. You can't get rid of wealth. Rich is some shit you could lose with a crazy summer and a drug habit."
- Chris Rock
 Substitute "white man" with "financially knowledgeable person" and "brother" with "professional athlete" and you get a rough approximation of what the documentary is trying to convey. There's a very telling portion of the film in which one of the interview guests, a financial adviser, says something to the effect of "investing in mutual funds is not sexy. Turning 10 million dollars into 11.2 million dollars is not sexy. Owning bars, nightclubs, and strip clubs is sexy."

This is emblematic of a larger problem in society. I've harped on about it in multiple blog posts, but it's worth repeating: people are financially illiterate. The real tragedy is that it isn't hard to become financially literate. Skimming the financial section of any national daily and reading one book each on the stock market and the bond market can get anybody up to speed with what's really going on in the country.

Having a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean you're wealthy. When you use your money to make more money, that's when you're wealthy. Wealth is about making your money work for you. Not using your money to buy things that aren't necessary. It's fun to drive a Ferrari, own a ridiculously impractical mansion, or getting bottle service at the swankiest nightclub in town, but it isn't prudent.

One thing that you constantly see in media is the portrayal of an accountant or banker as an utterly boring and uninteresting person. I'll be the first to agree that staring at a balance sheet and trying to get the numbers to add up isn't the most thrilling thing in the world. But if that's the price for financial literacy, the world could use a lot more boring people.

1 comment:

  1. I have always thought about this, especially the poor athlete that goes pro. He's suddenly handed a large sum of money and that's not something he's used to.

    It reminds me of this show I saw on lottery winners. It was like a VH1 behind the music with lottery winners. They all lost their friends and they all lost their money. That's how I look at professional athletes. Everyone is going to look for a handout and when they say no, they lose them as a friend.

    The best thing you can do when you come into a large sum of money is keep your mouth shut. Athletes don't have that luxury.