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7 Best Movies For Learning About Personal Finance

Blogs, financial news channels, Wikipedia, magazines – there’s a long list of resources out there for learning about personal finance. And while information can instruct, it doesn’t always inspire.

One of the best ways to get a handle on a subject, or to begin to understand how a complicated system works, is by watching other people go through the process of learning about it. Understanding their motivations and emotions, the mistakes they make, and the truths they realize can put a personal touch on the most mundane of topics – plus inspire you to do likewise.

Movies With Lessons About Personal Finance

Movies may be fiction (for the most part), but fiction has been responsible for disseminating some of the most powerful ideas of our time. As one of the most popular mass forms of fiction today, movies have played a role in framing ideas and lessons in terms we can all understand. Personal finance is no exception.

Note: Spoilers abound below.

1. Wall Street

Is greed good? According to Gordon Gekko, it is. Michael Douglas’s portrayal of the Manhattan investor won him an Oscar in 1987. It also gave pop culture an iconic money man to represent the avarice a capitalist system can breed, as well as the dangers to the economy it can cause.

Younger generations of financiers have adopted Gekko’s get-rich-at-all-costs attitude, and the movie has become almost as iconic as the street it’s named after. But that doesn’t necessarily make screenwriter Stanley Weiser happy. “We wanted to capture the hyper-materialism of the culture,” Weiser said, according to Vanity Fair. “That was always the intent of the movie. Not to make Gordon Gekko a hero.”

In the film, young up-and-comer Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is willing to do whatever it takes to get on Gekko’s team, and that includes gathering inside information to make illegal stock trades. It eventually leads to his betrayal of his own father (Martin Sheen) to satisfy Gekko’s greed. Bud is caught for his misdealings and eventually leveraged by authorities to turn on Gekko and gather information on his illegal business moves, thus ensuring a reduced sentence for himself.

“Wall Street” is a classic story of the rise and fall of an ambitious, young worker who craves success at all costs but doesn’t understand its pitfalls. Bud Fox learns a valuable lesson by the end of the movie: Playing by the rules and living a life of honor and loyalty are more important than all the cash in the world.

2. Glengarry Glen Ross

Con men are everywhere. In David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” bottom-feeding real estate salesmen spend their time convincing people to buy land in Florida for a lot more than it’s really worth. It’s a similar theme to “Wall Street” – do what you have to do to get rich – with one big difference: These guys aren’t successful.

One of the first scenes in the film shows them berated by a Gekko-like character portrayed by Alec Baldwin, who gives them the eventual catch-22 of the movie: You can’t sell real estate without the best sales leads, but you don’t get access to the best leads if you can’t sell real estate.

It’s a bleak picture of the American Dream that Mamet paints. One in which desperate men do what they have to do to con the weakest and most desperate among us. And when simple conning won’t work, they conspire and turn on one another to get a leg up in the race to sales glory. In the end, the only character to face consequences is Jack Lemmon’s Shelley “The Machine” Levene, who broke into the office at night to steal the coveted Glengarry sales leads. The other brokers who scheme ordinary citizens out of their money? They get off free.

“ABC, Always Be Closing” may be good advice on the sales floor, but not when it comes to living a fruitful, well-rounded life. An honest living, even when the rewards aren’t as spectacular, beats out illicit money-making scams any day of the week.

3. A Perfect Murder

Debt is a killer. In “A Perfect Murder,” Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) gets in over his head by leveraging his personal fortune for a business deal. His bet backfires and he ends up on the verge of bankruptcy. Good thing he’s married to the heiress of a multi-million dollar fortune. Or, is it?

It turns out his wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is having an affair with another man (Viggo Mortensen) and is contemplating leaving her husband for him, thus dealing Taylor a serious double-blow. Taylor digs into the Viggo Mortensen character’s past and finds that the paramour has had some dirty dealings, which Taylor uses for leverage to blackmail Viggo into killing his wife. It’s a convoluted plan that all sprang from an overleveraged investment strategy and the overwhelming debt that resulted.

Yes, there are certainly healthy forms of debt, as long as your financial situation can sustain them. A home mortgage and student loans can both be had at favorable interest rates nowadays, and both can allow you to invest in your future. But other forms of personal debt – leasing an unnecessary car, charging a luxurious vacation to your credit card – are insidious and potentially damaging.

Avoid Taylor’s fate by being prudent in your spending and never risking more than you can comfortably lose in the stock market. The pitfalls of debt are deep and dangerous – even if they’re not quite as dangerous, realistically, as Taylor’s predicament is.

4. Office Space

Not every movie with financial life lessons to offer is a downer. “Office Space” is a modern classic about a man who simply hates his job. Know anyone like that? The tribulations of Initech, where the main character Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) works, are now baked into pop culture – TPS reports, stolen staplers, flair, and printers that deserve to be taken out back and bashed to smithereens.

Everything changes when our hero is hypnotized, but never comes out of the spell. Suddenly, life is beautiful. He has no problem showing up late, being totally honest with his bosses, and asking a pretty waitress out after a years-long crush.

What’s the lesson? There are a couple. First, your job should be more than just a paycheck. Everyone should try to get some kind of enjoyment out of their chosen profession. Second, a positive attitude in the face of adversity is a good thing, not a liability. When you encounter challenges at work, approach them with your game face on and a sunny outlook for their resolution.

Sure, we can’t all have our dream jobs, but even if you’re stuck in a hell-hole of a company, take a lesson from Gibbons’ playbook and be cheery and open and honest. Who knows, your bosses might value it more than you think.

5. Boiler Room

“Boiler Room” is kind of like “Wall Street” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” had a baby. It’s about stockbrokers who use high-pressure sales techniques to make customers buy financial products they do not want – or need.

Looking at it from the customer’s perspective, we can certainly all identify. How many times have you been in a car dealership, department store, or repair shop and been approached, harangued, and harassed by salespeople who seem like they’re doing everything possible to convince you to contribute to their commission check? If the salespeople are good – in other words, if they’re skilled at convincing others to follow the advice they dole out – you may have to fight temptation when faced with an impulse purchase.

Of course, this isn’t to say all salespeople are manipulators like the scavengers in “Boiler Room.” The best of the breed don’t have to convince you of anything. They simply have to represent a good product, answer questions accurately and honestly, and address any concerns you have. If you’re faced with anyone other than that, keep your guard up.

6. Indecent Proposal

What’s a million dollars worth to you? In “Indecent Proposal,” a young married couple (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) lose all their money in Vegas to an ill-advised gamble. But, they’re presented with an offer. Robert Redford’s billionaire character John Cage offers them $1 million for a single night with Demi Moore. They talk it over and accept, and their relationship falls apart as a result.

Money is important, but it’s not the only thing – and it’s certainly not worth sacrificing your character, ethics, and family for. There are no shortcuts to getting rich. Only hard work, smart savings, and prudent investments. Your self-respect and self-worth are worth far more than any dollar figure.

7. Pursuit of Happyness

Entrepreneurship can also be a great path to wealth, and Will Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner is a perfect example. In the “Pursuit of Happyness,” which is based on a true story, Gardner and his young son face a series of obstacles that would test Job himself. They’re evicted from their home, forced to stay in transit station restrooms and homeless shelters, and at one point have only $22 to their name.

Somehow, that doesn’t stop Gardner. He continues to work, eventually wins a job at an investment firm, and goes on to found his own brokerage which eventually earns him millions. We’ve all been down on our luck at one point or another, and we should take a lesson from Gardner who never gave up, continued to work hard and seek out opportunity, and finally found success.

Remember, happiness isn’t guaranteed to anyone. It’s won in the pursuit.

Final Word

Once the credits roll, the real work begins. Apply the lessons you’ve learned to your own personal experience. If you want to dig yourself out of debt, start by creating a personal budget and cutting out all unnecessary purchases. If you want to ramp up retirement savings, speak to your HR rep about automatically diverting a portion )or larger portion) of your paycheck every month.

Do you know any other movies with lessons about personal finance?

Mark Riddix is the founder and president of an independent investment advisory firm that provides personalized investing and asset management consulting. Mark has written financial columns for Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area newspapers and is the author of the book, "Your Financial Playbook."