7 Movies That Teach Valuable Money Lessons

By Mike Peterson
In July 25, 2016

Like most folks, I go to the movies to get away from my day-to-day life; to escape reality for an hour or so and think about something other than work, or bills, or dinner plans, or any of the other hundreds of mundane things most of us have to think about.

But, as a financial guy, I can’t help viewing movies from a money perspective. I also can’t help noticing the rising cost of going to the movies. Seriously! Do you believe how expensive it is to get popcorn and a soda?

But I’m getting off-topic. This blog is not about the high cost of movie theater snacks. It’s about movies – specifically, movies that contain some sort of financial lesson. It’s kind of surprising how many movies – from classic comedies to horror movies to gritty dramas – have something to say about things like money, debt, or spending. I could probably fill an entire book!

For now, though, I’ll settle for filling a blog. I chose seven movies that have some pretty good takeaways, financially speaking:

  • The Money Pit. This 1986 movie stars Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a young couple looking to buy their first home. With the help of a friend in the real estate business, they find an amazing deal: A sprawling, beautiful mansion priced hundreds of thousands below market value because the owner wants to sell quickly. As they find out later, the owner is a con artist, and beneath the attractive exterior the mansion is a crumbling ruin. Hanks and Long end up on the brink of bankruptcy as they try to make the mansion livable.

The lesson here? A little research – or even a simple home inspection – could have saved the day. Everyone loves a deal. But if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

  • Safety Last! In this 1923 classic starring Harold Lloyd (one of the great stars of the silent film era), a young man goes off to the big city in search of a good-paying career. He ends up with a low-paying retail job. In an effort to impress his girlfriend back home, he spends money he doesn’t have sending her expensive gifts that he can’t afford. When she shows up in the city expecting him to be a wealthy and successful businessman, he panics. Instead of telling her the truth, he embarks on a series of risky stunts all in an effort to keep up the appearance that he’s “made it” – culminating in the film’s famous “clock dangling” scene (chances are, even if you’ve never even heard of Harold Lloyd, you’ve seen this image).

The lesson? Well, there are a few, really. Not lying to your significant other about your financial situation is a good one. It’s also a good reminder that, in an uncertain economy, you might not end up with an amazing, great-paying job right away. Also, you shouldn’t spend money you don’t have to impress other people: You might not end up dangling from a skyscraper, but you might end up perched precariously atop a mountain of high-interest credit card debt, which is equally scary, in my opinion.

  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This 1989 holiday classic stars Chevy Chase as put-upon family man Clark Griswold, who tries to organize a “good old-fashioned family Christmas,” with disastrous results. One of the film’s storylines involves Clark’s plan to surprise his loved ones with an expensive new swimming pool — which he can’t really afford but has paid for with the funds that he expects to receive as his annual Christmas bonus. Notice that I said “expects to receive.” Things don’t exactly go as planned and when his company decides to cut costs, Clark’s bonus falls through and he’s left wondering how to pay for the huge purchase.

There are a lot of great lessons in this movie about family and valuing people and experiences over things. But from a financial point of view, the big lesson here is that you shouldn’t spend money – whether it’s an expected paycheck, a tax return, or an annual bonus — before you actually have it in your bank account. Because you can’t pay for a pool with a subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club.

  • The Big Short. Based on a bestselling book of the same name and featuring an all-star cast including Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carell, this film presents the events and people involved in the housing crisis in a clear, engaging way. It’s as educational as it is entertaining.

The lesson: In a general sense, this movie kind of like taking a course in “U.S. housing bubble 101.” If you’ve always been slightly confused about how the 2007-08 housing crisis        came about, this Oscar-winning film is a great starting point. On personal finance level, it serves as a much-needed reminder that, in the world of finance, not everyone is looking out for the little guy. Most     the people who ended up losing their homes when the housing bubble burst didn’t really   know what they were getting into. This is why it’s important to stay informed and do your own research before you make an important financial   decision – sadly, there are people out there who don’t have your best interests in mind.

  • Clueless. This movie’s protagonist, Cher, is a super-wealthy valley girl with a wallet full of credit cards and a “money-can-solve-any-problem” outlook on life. Through the first half of this 90’s era teen comedy, Cher and her equally wealthy and shallow friends shop, spend, and obsess over designer clothes and luxury cars.

But rather than reinforcing the value of material things, the movie gradually reveals how “clueless” Cher really is when it comes to more important things.

The lesson? To quote the film: “’Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for others.” In other words, there’s more to life than money and material possessions. Like being a good friend,             helping others, or doing volunteer work.

  • Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slasher flick is like Safety Last in that, even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably seen the famous “shower scene” where Janet Leigh is terrorized by a knife-wielding motel owner. But what you might not know or remember is that, Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, would never have wound up the motel if her fiancée, Sam hadn’t been in some serious debt. Early on in the film, we find out that the only thing standing between Marion, Sam, and wedded bliss is his outstanding debt. So, Marion takes matters into her own hands: She steals $40,000 from her boss’ real estate business and goes on the run to California, where she’ll rendezvous with her fiancée, pay his debt, and live happily ever after. She stops at the Bates Motel on the way, and, well, you probably know the rest.

The financial lessons? First: Stealing is very, very wrong. Second:   Debt can make you do crazy things and make it difficult for you to reach important life goals.

  • The Net. This Sandra Bullock thriller was made in 1995, just as regular people were starting to use the Internet to do things like order pizza, buy airline tickets, and avoid face-to-face conversations. This was also right around the time we realized that people could use the ‘Net to commit new, high-tech crimes, like identity theft. Though a bit dated and unrealistic (Bullock’s awkward-computer-geek character gets caught up in an over-the-top plot involving cyber-spies and murder), the film does serve     as a reminder that bad things can happen when your personal information falls into the wrong hands, which is why it’s so important to do things like change your passwords regularly and take basic precautions when banking or shopping online.

Looking for a Hollywood ending to your debt problems? If you need advice about debt, budgeting, or responsible credit card use, our experienced financial experts will give you star treatment. Contact the Debt Guru team today for a free debt consultation

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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