Living with credit

6 credit lessons for pro athletes (and all of us)

John Egan

Joe McLean is a coach. But he doesn’t coach athletes on the court or on the field.

Instead of X’s and O’s, McLean is all about numbers.

McLean is a financial coach, so to speak, who teaches his clients – many of whom are professional athletes in the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and other sports leagues – how to play offense and defense with their money.

One part of McLean’s playbook deals with credit cards. And what his playbook contains can help you run up the score (your credit score, that this), no matter which financial league you’re in.

Here are six of McLean’s credit card rules.

1. Pay off the balance every month.

If you’re going to use a credit card, make the full payment every month so that you don’t incur interest charges.

By paying off your credit card bill every month “you’re going to see the immediate consequences of having to manage debt,” says McLean, managing partner Intersect Capital LLC, a wealth management firm based in San Ramon, California. “Never carry a balance.”

This is an easy-to-follow rule but one that not everyone adheres to, of course.

2. Exercise caution.

When McLean signs up a pro athlete as a client, he’ll obtain a credit card for the client but typically he will not give it to the athlete right away.

Instead, the client will be restricted to using a debit card, with a certain amount of money deposited in the linked bank account every two weeks. It’s sort of like parents giving an allowance to a child.

By doing this, the client is put on a budgetary diet and isn’t tempted to embark on a spending spree with a credit card.

“Once they have proven that they can stay with the process,” McLean says, “then we’ll send them a credit card and they can use that for travel purposes.”

You can apply this same kind of discipline to ensure you don’t foul out with your finances.

“You’ve got to manage your income responsibly first before you’re able to manage your debt,” McLean says.

3. Don’t shop with credit cards.

This rule might be difficult to follow if you’ve spotted a must-have Hugo Boss suit at Nordstrom, but McLean advises his clients to pull out the plastic only to cover travel expenses – not everyday expenses.

Just as every athlete has a specific purpose on a team, each of your credit cards probably should have its own role. For instance, one credit card could cover travel costs and another could be set aside for emergencies.

4. Know the (credit) score.

Credit card companies and other creditors base their lending decisions in large part on your credit score. Therefore, it’s critical to know your score so that you can create the best game plan possible to guide your financial life.

If you learn that you’ve got a low credit score, you can take action to improve it. If you find out you have a high credit score, you can take action to preserve it.

But if you don’t know your credit score, it’s like a basketball player not having the right shoes or a baseball player not having the right glove.

To be an MVP in the credit game, you’ve got to have the proper equipment, and that includes your credit score.

5. Freeze your credit.

McLean says he initially was freezing the credit of his pro sports clients – restricting access to their credit reports – so he could get a handle on their spending habits. Was a client applying for a credit card? Was he trying to buy a Lamborghini?

Now, the credit of his high-profile athlete-clients remains frozen to protect them from identity theft and other fraud. The credit is unfrozen only when the client is going to be seeking a credit card or a loan, McLean says.

“It’s very difficult to make an impulsive purchase when you put that [a freeze] in place,” he says.

Most of us would stand to benefit from fighting fraud and impulsive purchases by freezing our credit reports.

6. Turn finances into a competition.

McLean says that with his clients, he likes to “gamify” the system of juggling income and debt.

“All I’m doing is helping them keep score with their money,” he says. “No matter what sport you play in life, whether it’s just having fun or professionally, you always keep score.”

If you’re not a pro athlete, you, too, can take a game-style approach to your money, pushing yourself to win when it comes to your credit score and other financial benchmarks.

See related: 4 credit lessons women can learn from men, 4 credit lessons men can learn from women

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