Money lessons from the Grinch, Scrooge, and Buddy the Elf

Every December, my husband and I have a Christmas movie marathon. We watch as many holiday movies as we can between December 1 and December 31, which is a fun way to get into the spirit. (Here in Texas, we often have 70-degree days in December, so we have to get into the spirit somehow!)

This year, I started thinking about all of the great personal finance lessons in many of these movies. I mean, if you follow Buddy the Elf's example, maybe you'll ignore your overbearing uncle's “hot stock” advice and invest in index funds instead!

Or maybe I'm writing this while drinking a hot toddy. Either way, read on and I'll explain…

Lesson one: True wealth isn't about money

This is probably the lesson in every holiday movie. Well, maybe not “Die Hard.” (What? “Die Hard” is totally a holiday movie, and it's always and forever a part of Christmas movie marathon month.) Anyway, most holiday movies are about true wealth and happiness, but we'll just talk about a few.

First up, “It's a Wonderful Life,” of course. In the film, George Bailey is a man who has sacrificed his own dreams to take care of everyone else. For instance, his lifelong dream to travel is squashed when he agrees to run the Building and Loan Association, in order to make sure the evil Mr. Potter doesn't stop providing home loans for the working poor. Life has become pretty bleak, though, and the Building and Loan is going under. George is considering suicide, when an angel intervenes and shows him what would have happened to the town if George Bailey hadn't existed: seedy nightclubs, crime, death. George decides he wants to live, and when he returns home, there's a huge gathering of townspeople, with enough donations to save the Building and Loan. George's brother calls George “the richest man in town” and in the pile of donations is a note from the angel: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

In other words, true wealth is measured by how much love you give to and receive from the people around you.

Another holiday movie that's about true wealth is one of my favorites, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” The Grinch is tired of the Whos in Whoville, annoyed by their cheery ways and all their noise, noise, noise! So he hatches a plan to steal Christmas — the decorations, the gifts, and even the roast beast. But when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos are singing merrily around the Christmas tree. The Grinch realizes that community and fellowship are the true sources of their happiness, not material things. And his puny little heart grows three sizes larger.

Another holiday movie with a similar theme is “Love, Actually,” which GRS founder J.D. Roth really likes for its money lesson. “My absolute favorite holiday movie is ‘Love, Actually,' which gets me a lot of crap from my friends,” he says. “But I like the film because it clearly demonstrates that happiness is about more than money; it's about love and belonging. The many characters come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are wealthy, some are not. No matter how much they have, what they really want is to love and be loved in return.”

Lesson two: Learn new skills

Speaking of “Love, Actually,” there's another great money lesson in the film, as Abigail Freedman of IPickUpPennies.net points out: Expand your skill set.

“The little boy who had a crush on a musically inclined classmate worked ferociously to learn the drums in order to perform in the Christmas concert,” says Abigail. “So if you want that promotion (or that girl), make yourself worthy of notice.”

Lesson three: Outsource to save time and money

If Abigail's last name sounds familiar, it's because her mom is former GRS staffer Donna Freedman, and Donna has a great holiday movie lesson too. From “A Christmas Story”: Sometimes outsourcing is cost-effective.

“Don't knock yourself out making a gigantic holiday dinner if you can't afford it and/or it will take too much out of you,” says Donna. “Go out for ‘Chinese turkey' instead.”

Lesson four: Be your own elf

In the movie “Elf,” Will Ferrell's character stays true to himself, even though he's an oversized Christmas elf wandering through Manhattan. He refuses to back down when he exposes the mall Santa as a fraud, he pours syrup on his spaghetti even when his family looks at him like he's nuts, and although he tries on a suit, he eventually goes back to his elfish attire.

Similarly, when it comes to our finances, we have to be true to ourselves. Maybe family members don't get your frugal ways, or maybe they think that your early retirement goal is a pipe dream. Buddy the Elf knows you have to do what works for you, even if your family looks at you like you're a weirdo.

Lesson five: Indulging all your wants won't make you happy

In “Home Alone,” when Kevin's family accidentally leaves him home alone during the Christmas holiday, he finally gets his wish. No more parents, no more annoying siblings — he's free to jump on the bed, order pizza, and try out his dad's aftershave. At first, it's pretty great. He even handles two bumbling burglars pretty well. But when he wakes up on Christmas morning, he's sad that he's still all alone.

As Kevin learned, indulging every want is fun for awhile, at least until reality sets in. That's true in personal finance, too. If you indulge in too many material wants, reality might come in the form of a shockingly high credit card bill.

Lesson six: Giving away money is good for you

When “A Christmas Carol” begins, Scrooge is one miserable, miserly guy. He turns away two men taking donations to help feed the poor on Christmas, and he overworks and underpays his nephew, Bob Cratchit. But then Scrooge gets a visit from three spirits, and he sees the results of his miserly ways: the death of a crippled Tiny Tim Cratchit, whose father can't afford medical treatment, and Scrooge's own neglected grave. Determined to change his ways, he wakes up on Christmas morning a new man, donating money to the poor, buying a prize turkey for the Cratchit family, and giving his nephew a raise. As a result, Scrooge lives out the rest of his days a happy man.

This is a great example of how charitable giving benefits the donor as well as the recipient. From Psychology Today:

“…giving to charity doesn't just help the causes being supported, it also helps the givers by making donors happier, improving their self-esteem, and helping them feel more connected to the rest of the world (Strahilevitz, 2011). As such, giving to charity can have positive effects on our overall well-being.”

Charitable giving is better than selfless, it's a win-win.

Okay, Readers, I know there are a lot of holiday movies I didn't talk about here, so let me know in the comments if you have a favorite movie with a good money lesson!

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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

Love this list! The Muppet Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are on my list every year. I think Christmas movies let us escape the consumerism and commercialism of the holidays and help remind us what’s really important.

Another one of my favourites is White Christmas. The opening sequence where they’re having a Christmas concert in an army camp almost makes me cry every time!

AZ Joe
AZ Joe
6 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I love the Muppet Christmas Carrol! Nice story, great humor. We adults watch it every year. Thanks for the post April.

Marsha
Marsha
6 years ago

Thanks for the reminder about Die Hard. I agree that it’s a Christmas movie–and one my husband and sons like to watch. Terrorists, gunplay, explosions–fa la la la la, la la la la!

Karellen
Karellen
6 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

[“True wealth isn’t about money”] is probably the lesson in every holiday movie. Well, maybe not “Die Hard.” That is totally the lesson of Die Hard. Hans Gruber is only interested in money, and is a very mean person, who does very mean things, in order to try and get more of it. He dies, alone. (Well, nearly alone. Karl is still alive, but Hans doesn’t know that, and not for long anyway.) Whereas John McClane is a good person, who only kills scumbags when they really deserve it (he even tries to save Ellis, who pretty much has it… Read more »

SwampWoman
SwampWoman
6 years ago

Bob Cratchit is Scrooge’s employee, not his nephew! That’s the kind of movie I was picturing in my mind when the grandkids were here and Swampman said “Let’s watch Christmas movies!” He put in “Die Hard”.

Christopher
Christopher
6 years ago
Reply to  SwampWoman

I think it’s actually a goose that he orders for the Cratchitts, not a turkey but I’m being nitpicky.

SwampWoman
SwampWoman
6 years ago

Bob Cratchit is Scrooge’s employee, not his nephew!

That was the kind of Christmas movie I had in mind when SwampMan said “Let’s watch Christmas movies!” when the grandkids were here. He put in “Die Hard”. “What?” he said. “Die Hard IS a Christmas move!”

Jon @MoneySmartGuides
Jon @MoneySmartGuides
6 years ago

My favorite is Christmas Vacation. The lesson comes when Clark’s boss doesn’t pay out a Christmas bonus to save money. In the end, he hurt all of his employees. Clark wanted the money to buy a pool. The pool would have been a place for his family to enjoy and gather around.

Matt YLBody
Matt YLBody
6 years ago

My favorite is Home Alone 🙂 Nothing like a reminder that you need some time alone too lol

getagrip
getagrip
6 years ago

Everyone gives Scrooge a bad wrap, but the man used frugal principles to gain tons of wealth. He’s the best of business models maximizing profit and minimizing outlay by paying his employee the minimum and demanding the most work for it, utilizing only the necessary coal to heat his facility so the ink didn’t freeze, retaining the minimal staff at his home to maintain it, making shrewd business deals to advance his fortunes, still eating some basic porrage rather than dining expensively, etc. If he had done all those things and didn’t cop an attitude and verbally abuse his employee… Read more »

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

I can’t agree with this. If Scrooge had practiced frugality with the kindlier attitude you suggest, he would have been his earlier employer, the benevolent Mr. Fezziwig, who was shown to have bought his employees undying loyalty through spending a small amount for an annual Christmas party. Bob Cratchit is only loyal to Scrooge because he can’t find other gainful employment. The minimal staff at Scrooge’s home are shown to be of the worst sort in the Future To Come, who literally steal him blind as he lies in his deathbed. When Scrooge begs the Ghost of Christmas To Come… Read more »

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Agree! My favourite line is the part about “if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

I think frugal crosses the line into miserly when the spirit cannot “go forth”.

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
6 years ago

Miracle on 34th Street. Dreams can come true, but it doesn’t hurt to work towards them. The little girl’s house was found, but the parents had to buy it.

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Elf is the family favorite around our house. “You stink, you smell like beef and cheese… you don’t smell like Santa..” is a classic line from the movie.

Christmas with the Kranks is a good Holiday movie. Reminds us to be thankful for what we have and to give to others.

Jane
Jane
6 years ago

Our family favorite from Elf also relates to smells: “This place reminds me of Santa’s Workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me. ”

Oh, and I often use the quasi-expletive, “Son of a Nutcracker!”

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Son of a Nutcracker is one of my wives favorites! 🙂

Money Saving
Money Saving
6 years ago

I especially agree with #5 here. I’ve purchased things in the past that I believed would make me happy and improve my life. It almost always ends up not being the case at all.

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE!!!

Ryan @ Impersonal Finance
Ryan @ Impersonal Finance
6 years ago

“In other words, true wealth is measured by how much love you give to and receive from the people around you.”

Yep. Money isn’t everything. I definitely thing a lot of lessons can be learned from the Grinch. Great list!

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Christmas Vacation actually has a couple decent lessons. The first money lesson is never count on bonuses as guaranteed income – if you are lucky enough to receive them to begin with. You never know when your company will switch over to the “Jelly of the month club” plan. And despite what cousin Eddie says “the gift that keeps on givin” won’t pay the bills. Second, along those same lines – Clark put the deposit down on the swimming pool by floating a check. That was just the deposit, not even the balance. Good reminder not to purchase things you… Read more »

Carole
Carole
6 years ago

Bob Cratchit is Scrooge’s nephew as well as his employee!

a
a
6 years ago
Reply to  Carole

Maybe in the movie, but not in the original story by Charles Dickens. Bob Cratchit was just his clerk, his nephew’s name was Fred.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
6 years ago
Reply to  a

I can’t believe I remembered the nephew’s name was Fred! I am oddly proud of myself.

Ely
Ely
6 years ago
Reply to  Carole

I have seen a hundred variations on A Christmas Carol, and I have NEVER seen one in which Cratchit is the nephew. That could be a money lesson – scrapping essential storylines to save a few bucks on film? Fred has a point to make too – that kindness and generosity don’t have to cost anything.

Peggy
Peggy
6 years ago

A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of my favorites!

Tara
Tara
6 years ago

Great examples! I had to use the example of the kids mistreating the Grinch and as to why the Grinch became so grumpy with my nine year old this year. There was a child in his class that was getting made fun of, so I explained that he needed to help break the cycle or that child too could end up with a broken heart!

LynnMc.
LynnMc.
6 years ago

Mine is ‘It Happened on Fifth Avenue’.

Ely
Ely
6 years ago

Our favorite holiday movie is ‘We’re No Angels,’ with Humphrey Bogart. Escaped convicts enter a family business intending to rob and murder, and instead provide the best Christmas ever. Sweet and hilarious. And Humphrey Bogart! 🙂

Finance and Fitness Dreams
Finance and Fitness Dreams
6 years ago

A Christmas Story. So many money lessons:

*Aunt Clara handmaking the Pink Nightmare pajamas

*Dad fixing his own tire, not calling AAA for help

*Winning a Major Award with the Leg Lamp, that was not purchased, that was won!

These are just a few!!

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago

Fun post! Home Alone is my favorite. I also like Bad Santa. Anyone? There’s definitely a lesson about money/greed/hedonism in that one. Plus, it’s pretty funny.

qs
qs
6 years ago

cool!

EMH
EMH
6 years ago

Gremlins is also a good Christmas movie. I don’t know what the lesson would be except to listen to wise men who warn you not to eat after midnight.

Gal
Gal
6 years ago

In addition, if you really want to progress to money, it is still about buying what you just need rather than impulsive purchasing. To fight this just use a shopping list application which is always with you and does not let you forget the rule. for example the one I use https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gal.appshoppinglist&hl=en

Don
Don
6 years ago

“Charitable giving is better than selfless, it’s a win-win.”

Is selfless supposed to be selfishness?

John
John
6 years ago

Cratchit wasn’t Scrooge’s nephew, he was his over worked, underpaid, apprenticed clerk. And I think using Scrooge is a bad example, given the rampant consumerism and all the hype at christmas

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

It’s a wonderful life actually teaches a lot of bad things. I loved that movie growing up as a child but now that I’m adult I realize it’s anti-capitalist. Don’t get me wrong. I love the acting, I think it’s great by showing that we have worth as human beings and we impact others more than we think we do. However it has its problems: 1. It’s anti-wealthy and anti-capitalist. It says its wrong to pursue wealth and that wealth makes you greedy. That the wealthy don’t contribute to society at all. 2. You have to be a martyr for… Read more »

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