Financial lesson from a football game

Take it from the chain crew: When it comes to marking the line of scrimmage, close is often good enough. That's true of managing your money, too.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 16, 2012 12:48PM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


Len Penzo dot Com logoI'm not a big football fan. Oh sure, I occasionally enjoy watching football on television. But, unlike hockey and baseball, I rarely bother buying tickets to attend football games in person.


That being said, this past weekend my buddy had an extra ticket to a college football game between USC and Arizona State, so I eagerly tagged along.


Men watching television, holding beers © Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy, Cultura, Getty ImagesAnyway, as I was sitting in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum blissfully watching the home team dismantle the opposition, I started taking an interest in the chain crew along the sidelines.


For those of you who are not familiar with American football, the chain crew is composed of three men who are responsible for measuring the yardage the offensive team gains in its quest to get a first down. It's an extremely important job, because, as any gridiron aficionado will tell you, football is a game of inches.


Most of the time, the chain crew stays on the sidelines because the officials on the field are able to easily determine whether a team has gained the 10 yards required to earn a first down.


Sometimes, however, the officials on the field are unable to make a first-down call via the naked eye.


That's when the chain crew goes into action. Two so-called "rod men" carry a 10-yard chain that is attached to poles at each end, onto the field. One pole is planted into the turf at the original line of scrimmage, and then the chain is pulled taut. If the nose of the ball exceeds the reach of the chain, the offense has earned its first down.


To ensure the sanctity of any measurement, a third official is responsible for marking the chain at the closest 5-yard mark on the field and escorting the chain crew onto the field, being careful to never let go of the marked link on the chain. Doing so ensures that the chain's position is not inadvertently corrupted when it is transferred from the sideline to the field.


It's all very impressive to the casual observer, which is why I used to think that the "dance of the chain crew" was a carefully choreographed ballet of scientific precision.


However, after closely observing the chain crew in action last weekend, I now know better.


Believe it or not, I noticed that every time the offense got a first down, the chain crew on the sideline always established the new first-down spot by making a quick visual observation of the ball's position on the field -- even though most of the time they were dozens of feet away.


In other words, the chain crew was merely "eyeballing" it.


And that's when it dawned on me: The whole process was completely arbitrary, which makes the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies critical third- and fourth-down measurements in American football pure overkill, if not an outright sham.

Even so, the chain crew is still vital to the game because it provides the football officials on the field with the means to make decisions -- even though the data they provide are not quite 100% accurate.


I know what you're thinking: "So what' does this have to do with personal finance?"




Unfortunately, many folks who recognize the importance of managing their personal finances often refuse to make critical financial decisions or implement good personal finance practices because they're perfectionists.


For instance, I've talked to plenty of folks who never got around to implementing a budget because they had no idea how much money they should allocate to their individual discretionary and nondiscretionary expenses. I've also spoken with people who delayed making contributions to their 401k plans because they couldn't decide what percentage of their income to commit for retirement, or feared they were going to "incorrectly" allocate their fund mix between stocks and bonds.


Armchair psychologists call that "paralysis by analysis," and it can be costly. For example, failing to contribute $3,600 to a 401k for just a single year leaves $10,605 of pretax earnings on the table, assuming a constant 4% return over 35 years.


When it comes to managing our money, perfectionism is usually the enemy of good enough -- and often counterproductive too.


So the next time you find yourself dithering over a particular financial decision, make sure you're not overanalyzing things; it could be costing you more than you think.


After all, there are times when close can be considered good enough. Just ask a football chain crew.


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