ALLEN PARK, Mich. — On the 19th of every month, Jamal Agnew wakes up knowing he’s going to be at least $500 poorer than the day before.
Sure enough, he checks his bank account later in the day and sees the automatic withdrawal. The Detroit Lions cornerback knew all of this would happen well before he became an All-Pro returner as a rookie in 2017 or even before he knew he’d be in the NFL at all.
His alma mater, the University of San Diego, plays in the FCS and doesn’t offer football scholarships. When he went there, any breaks on his $40,000-plus per year tuition came through financial aid and grants.
So Agnew is like 44 million other Americans: He’s working, in part, to pay off the $50,000 in student loans he accrued.
Yes, the 24-year-old has more money than most of his peers who are two years out of college and in the workforce. Agnew still understands the feeling of at least some of your paycheck is disappearing to pay off your education, part of what Forbes reported is $1.5 trillion of total student debt in the United States.
“Obviously I’m dreading having to pay these loans back,” Agnew said. “But I think about it. Like, 90 percent of the people I’m leaving school with are going to have these loans and they are not going to be making nearly as much as I am [right now], so I’m just grateful for the position I’m in, the type of money I’ve made so far in the NFL.
“I’m in a position that a lot of my best friends who I went to school with, I mean, they want to be able to do the same thing I’m doing, which is pay these loans off as fast as possible.”
Agnew admits he could have paid off his loans almost immediately. A fifth-round draft pick, he received a $258,376 signing bonus. He made $465,000 as a rookie and $555,000 last year. As long as he makes the team in 2019, he’ll earn $645,000.
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Unlike many, he could have erased his debt quickly. But, after having no credit cards in college and living at home the final three years of school, he saw spacing out his loan payments as a way to build credit. Before he left San Diego, he registered with Nelnet, the student loan servicing company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, to handle his automatic payments.
“I’ve just been paying big chunks of it periodically but kind of just doing it slowly, building that credit,” Agnew said. “I’m almost done paying it off. I’m planning on, after this season, being completely done with all of that. I can’t wait. I really can’t wait.”
A decade before Agnew played for San Diego, Lions quarterback Josh Johnson was in a similar situation. He took out a loan with private student loan giant Sallie Mae to keep his mother from dealing with the debt of paying for his college education.
Despite financial aid and a Cal Grant, Johnson had six figures in student loans to repay by the time he left USD as the Toreros’ first NFL draft pick in 2008. At school, Johnson did everything he could to stretch his money. He made bags of chicken, vegetables and rice last for a week or two. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a staple.
Josh Johnson had six figures in student debt when he left FCS University of San Diego. Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
He said he worked three jobs: front desk clerk at the Old Town Inn on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; janitorial work some Saturdays, and a work-study job in USD’s financial aid office. The work-study gig was beneficial because it gave him a chance to see all the options and understand finances well before he received paychecks large enough to make sure ends met.
“You had to plan it out,” Johnson said. “All those things, hell yeah, it helps you for sure when you get to the NFL. There’s this perception and this lifestyle that you’re supposed to live. Like once you’ve lived another lifestyle, it’s like, I don’t really have to do that. It’s kind of why I’ve always been a more reserved kind of guy.”
Johnson didn’t know any better. Then he reached the NFL — student debt with him — and pulled up for his first road trip. He was baffled. In college, he said he flew commercial to games, had to move his bags on his own and dealt with the same headaches most travelers face. In the league, everything was easier.
He started talking with his college teammates, most of whom were saddled with similar student loan debt but without a semi-lucrative NFL contract — even as a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Like Agnew, he set up a plan. He didn’t have credit cards and wanted to use his student loan payments to build credit, so he set up a payment plan that varied based off interest rates.
As he began to pay debt off and did more research, it changed how he viewed college.
“It made me look at the whole college system very differently,” Johnson said. “Even at my school, I’ve seen so many kids that have great degrees and then they don’t get a real job. And then somebody who kind of knows the right people kind of gets a job over them. So it kind of makes it tough.
“… Because just going to get a degree really doesn’t guarantee you nothing. It’s kind of promoted that way a little bit, so you kind of expect, I got this great degree from this great school, but if you really don’t have the right relationships you still might be in the same hole that the average American may experience.”
Johnson’s initial plan was to pay off his student loans after six years. After four seasons with the Buccaneers, he signed a two-year contract with San Francisco and his old coach, Jim Harbaugh.
He was cut — starting an odyssey that spanned 15 teams in three football leagues, never totally knowing when his next football paycheck was coming and how long it would last. It altered his payment strategy, too.
When he signed with the Giants in 2016 with a base salary of $885,000, he felt he was in a stable enough situation he could finally pay off his debt a little later than he planned and it made him realize — perhaps earlier than most — the realities of paychecks in the NFL and the importance of setting up your future. There was no celebration when the last student loan check was paid. At that point, it was just another bill.
“You incur debt when you buy a house,” Johnson said. “You can incur debt when you buy a car. So to me, it kind of falls in line with everything else that this world kind of created for us. So for me, it’s more now about trying to establish things that when you sleep, you can make money so you can take care of these things for yourself.
“And then that’s having your money really work for you, which a lot of guys in this league have to grow and learn because you don’t really think about that.”
Agnew has around $20,000 in college debt remaining. To pay it off he’ll do what he’s done in the past — increase his monthly payments in hopes of getting rid of it within the next year. He monitors his bank accounts daily, always making sure there are no irregularities and that his planned payment budget is within his means.
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Because of the loans — and his upbringing — he’s on top of his finances. He lives a minimalist lifestyle, as there isn’t much he’s spent money on since leaving San Diego. His one exception was a 2018 Mercedes SUV crossover that is “something I wanted my whole life.” Yes, he’s making payments on that, too — payments he says are more than his minimum monthly student loan payment.
Other than the one splurge, he has lived frugally as far back as college — a lesson learned from his father. Agnew often made four or five peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches a day — creamy peanut butter and either Smucker’s strawberry or grape jelly — and would eat those throughout the day so he didn’t spend money at school.
He also laughs because, like everyone else with student loans (and even some without), Agnew is subject to robocalls and fraudulent calls about refinancing them.
“I get the spam calls all the time,” Agnew said. “I don’t know if someone is trying to steal my information. You never know. I watch a lot of TV shows and you see all this hacking stuff, so I’m just super cautious of all of that.”
Agnew decided the only thing he would spend money on would be needs, such as food, training and the necessities to get through daily life. He says he doesn’t live the same lifestyle as many NFL players. He is at the facility. He goes home. He plays video games. He doesn’t buy the newest in fashion – he’s often fine with his same slide-on shoes and shorts with either a T-shirt or a hoodie.
It goes back to his wants and his needs. Sure, there are 10 things he wants right now. Just those are not things he needs. And whenever he gets tempted, he has that reminder that shows up. As expected. On the 19th of every month.