Having Grit with Stephen Nelson

Q: Can you tell us about your experience as a student athlete at SMU?

A: My experience was a little atypical of a recruited college athlete. I was a no-name from Oregon who came down to Dallas and walked-on to the football team. Being a walk-on I wasn’t invited to fall camp my freshman year, but I came anyway and sat in the bleachers taking notes of practice so I’d be ready when I was allowed to join the team the first day of school (college football rosters expand once school starts but only 105 players are invited to camp). A few weeks into the season my receivers coach came up to me and said, “We need to get you ready to play.” And I did, my true freshman year.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t all smooth sailing as I endured injuries and four surgeries during my collegiate career. However, by the end I became a starter at receiver and on special teams, and earned a full scholarship my last year.

On the school end, I’ll admit I was a big nerd and loved learning. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do but business always fascinated me. When I got to SMU’s business school, my classmates knew what hedge-funds and credit default swaps were; I barely knew what a stock was, but I was curious. Turns out, curiosity is a great trait in the financial markets. My favorite class was called “valuation” where we had to work through cases and develop a value for different companies. The professor would make us all write our numbers on the board and then would proceed to make fun of the groups who were way off. I’ve never learned more from a class and definitely was always kept on my toes.

Overall, I had an incredible experience at SMU and feel grateful I was able to represent the school on the field and also walk away with not just a degree, but an education.

Q: How were you able to use your resources as a student athlete to take you to where you are now?

One of the biggest blessings (that didn’t seem so at the time) was getting hurt and having to redshirt my sophomore year. This meant I would graduate in four years, but still have another year left to play. Rather than taking some blow-off classes my 5th year, I took advantage of that time and got my masters in finance, which I’m extremely thankful to have. Also, the athletic department did a ton for us - resume workshops, speakers, interview prep, firm recruiting (shoutout to Mike Walke). I utilized all of this to make sure I was ready for the next stage when the playing career was over.

Q: Although you never became a professional athlete, what skills do you feel you have because of athletics?

A: Yeah, I’m one of those from the NCAA TV commercial who's going pro in something other than sports. There’s a myriad of skills you gain from playing sports; the usual ones are discipline, hard work, teamwork, and dedication. There’s two that really stand out to me: grit and not taking losing personally. Grit is pursuing something for a long time and having that “never give up” attitude. It mainly shows up in mundane tasks - but doing them over a lifetime compounds to incredible results. However, grit is a tough sell. Everyone wants to create the next big IPO, but no one wants to hustle unnoticed for a decade. Sports taught me that doing the little things right over a long period of time allows a kid from Portland to start for a D-1 Texas football team. A great read on this topic is the aptly titled book, Grit, by Angela Duckworth. Secondly, sports taught me to detach myself from outcomes. My senior year our football team went 1-11. It was a complete disaster. But it was not a personal reflection on me and who I was. This has led me to change my relationship with failure. I’m free to try stuff and fail because I know it’s just a data point that I can use to get better; failure isn’t tied to my identity. Ironically, I find failure to be an integral part of my career. Try things, fail at them, and gain experience. That’s a great way to learn

Q: Can you elaborate on what you do now?

I work in wealth management, but I like to say my job, and what drives me, is to help people make really wise decisions with their finances and help them get to where they want to be, whether that is in retirement, their current financial situation, a certain level of generosity or an overall healthy financial life. Specifically, this all plays out in a process called financial planning that my clients and I collaborate on together. We dive into budgeting, insurance planning, investments, income tax planning, retirement planning, charitable giving, and estate planning - helping them make the best decisions that’s in their best interest and aligns with their values. I love it. Every person is different and something is always going on in the world around us that may (or may not) be affecting their plan. You deal with smart people and help them make good decisions that have big ramifications. No pressure!

Q: You also have a blog that caters to personal finance, can you share us your mission behind that?

The mission is to foster learning. The test for me to confirm I’ve learned something is if I’m able to explain it in a way that other people understand. Frankly, investing and wealth management is kind of like a mystical beast where things are hidden behind a veil. Usually information the public reads from firms or news outlets has been watered down or uses industry jargon that makes it difficult for normal people (like me) to understand. I wanted it to be more like, “Hey, I work in this space and this is what I think, here’s the bad, here’s the good and I’ll call it like I see it.” The goal is for me to share what I’m learning and how I’m growing so maybe we all can become better investors. I wanted the blog to be something I would actually enjoy reading. Since I enjoy sports, I thought writing from that perspective would be a fun way to do it.

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Q: As someone who has lived it, what advice would you have for any student athlete whether they make it to the big leagues or not?

A: As athletes, you’re taught to be the best. To win. When a coach asks you what do you want to accomplish, the typical athlete responds with, “I want to be the best player that’s come out of this university.” Worrying about being the best is a massive waste of time. Instead, figure out how to be the best at getting better and then go do it. The great thing about that framework is the work never ends. I mean if you’re “the best” and you accomplish that goal, it’s a big letdown to think about what you’re gonna do next. Just work really hard at getting better at your craft, your family, your marriage, your friends, your mental aptitude, your speaking. Never stop. All of these little incremental gains will add up. This advice isn’t for the lazy players; it’s for the athletes who need to be held back otherwise they’ll run themselves into the ground.

Q: What advice do you have professional athletes in regards to personal finance?

A: First, figure out why money is important to you. Keep asking yourself “Why?” until you get to your core values. From there, set some goals of what you’d like to do with your money, making sure they align with those core values. Managing money is hard, but not in the-calculus-math type of hard more in the I-have-to-give-up-this-in-order-to-do-that type of hard. If you have a big “why” you’ll be able to stay on track when push comes to shove. Secondly, if you’re looking for some help with your finances, work to understand how incentives influence behavior. Like any industry, financial services garners both the good and the bad types of people. Only work with those who are fiduciary meaning they are obligated by law to look after your best interest rather than themselves. That should narrow the field down to a handful. Also, choose advisors who are actually qualified in their profession. The title “Financial Advisor” means nothing. Look for CFP® or CFA professionals. If you’re going to spend some money, do it on experiences; don’t spend to impress. Travel and see how other people live and experience life. Those will be the moments worth every penny.

Q: What does it mean to be a frugal athlete in your opinion?

A: Being a frugal athlete means aligning your finances with your values and goals, and going through the struggle to achieve them.


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Stephen Nelson

 is a Wealth Associate for Aldrich, a top wealth management and accounting firm according to CNBC and AccountingToday. He graduated from Southern Methodist University with a BBA and MS in Finance while also walking-on to the football team. He has also earned the rigorous CFP® certification and is the creator and writer of Per Diem, a blog about personal finance, investments and principles for athletes and weekend-warriors alike.