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!
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.