Learning how to manage our money can be as easy as going to the movies.
Over the decades, the peaks and troughs of the financial world have made for great cinema. But art can also be instructive.
Despite their focus on larger-than-life characters and a propensity to glamourise excess, many Hollywood blockbusters offer invaluable personal finance insights that we can all incorporate into our daily lives.
Here are five money lessons from the movies.
1. Wall Street
Greed is good, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko tells us in Wall Street, because it drives the evolution of mankind. Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1987 tale of a young stockbroker lured into the world of corporate espionage resonates just as loudly 35 years after it was released.
The film offers a primer on how financial markets work and how investors can benefit from calculated risks. It illustrates the role of demand and supply, how news (and insider information) drive up valuations and underscores the role of market regulators.
Through a gold trade in Hong Kong, we learn how money never sleeps in a diversified global market of numerous asset classes.
At a deeper level, the seminal tale of excess in the 1980s forces us to question our approach to money.
Is greed truly good? Even at someone else’s expense? Our uncertainty about whether Gekko should be a hero or a public enemy speaks to an abiding irony at the heart of capitalism, writes John Paul Rollert, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, “a moral ambivalence that sees us not knowing whether we should wipe the grin off Gekko’s face or mirror it”.
Those questions remain relevant at a time when global inequality is higher than ever. The World Inequality Report in December revealed that the richest 10 per cent of the global population currently take home 52 per cent of the world's income while the poorest half, by contrast, earn only 8 per cent of the total pie.
Lesson: how to make money work for you, but not at somebody’s expense.
2. The Money Pit
Rewind to 1986 for a lesson on what happens when you fall for sob stories and fail to do your due diligence.
Sound familiar? Stories of people who can’t pay their debts make headlines regularly, proving the continued relevance of The Money Pit.
Tom Hanks and Shelley Long play a couple who buy a house under pressure and in a hurry. Purchase made, they realise the building is in worse condition than they thought and requires a succession of expensive repairs — which they don’t have the funds for.
They learn not to trust slick salespeople and that buying a house doesn’t end with closing the deal. Ultimately, they are victims of their own lack of financial planning.
Debt remains a major issue in the Middle East region. About 71 per cent of the region’s youths are concerned about personal debt, according to the 2021 Arab Youth Survey. Last November, 4,511 Emirati citizens had financial debt of more than Dh1.1 billion written off as part of a national relief initiative.
Making purchases without a financial plan to pay for them can lead to one building up high volumes of debt over time. Whether it is a home, a car, a holiday or even luxury shoes on your credit card, consider making a list of each potential expense — and any unforeseen extras in advance.
Then identify a source of funds and try to set aside a few extra months’ payments before actually making the purchase.
Lesson: plan your purchases in advance and always have a financial plan.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
With total box-office earnings of $392 million, the 2013 story of the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, resonated with millions of people around the world.
The Wolf of Wall Street can be deconstructed for its lessons about poverty, ambition, ethics and addictive behaviour — not to mention the way it appears to glorify Belfort’s immoral choices.
But perhaps the biggest financial theme rippling through the Martin Scorsese film is the role of unregulated financial advisers. We see right away how Belfort and his team of brokers drive pump-and-dump rallies on penny stocks by cold-calling potential investors.
Not only is it worth checking their credentials — using sites such as whichfinancialadvisor.com and also by asking about commissionable investments — but it also pays to carry out research on investments beforehand and learn how to identify their potential.
A February 2019 study from Insight Discovery found that 37 per cent of UAE residents want stronger action from regulators against unregulated companies and fraudsters.
Those looking to invest their money should either do their own research — another great theme in the film — or put money into passively managed index funds. As the film emphasises, if an investment sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Lesson: be wary of financial salesmen.
In the 2009 animated film Up, Carl and Ellie begin saving for a trip to their dream holiday destination of Paradise Falls, but must constantly use their savings to fund more pressing needs. When Carl is eventually able to arrange the trip as a surprise for his wife, she falls ill and is admitted to hospital, dying soon after.
The 3D fantasy comedy offers a poignant look at the human character, but it holds an important lesson about the motivators of personal financial planning.
Money is the means to obtaining what we want — but only if we have a strategy on how to use it. Carl and Ellie constantly dip into their emergency fund because they don’t identify separate savings buckets.
It is worth considering having separate funds for medical emergencies, expenses over a period of job loss, unexpected trips and family emergencies. Most banks now offer the ability to open additional savings accounts online; setting up regular direct debits is usually a quick process within your banking app.
UAE residents have finally realised the importance of an emergency fund, with 29 per cent of respondents in a December 2021 survey by online financial aggregator Policybazaar.ae saying they now pay more attention to reducing discretionary spending and creating an emergency fund after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The next step is to identify and save for different goals, including a dream holiday — so that an emergency doesn’t cause you to miss out.
The other lesson in Up is that with medical cover and home insurance, you won’t have to dip into emergency funds to quite the same extent. While you will still need to pay the regular premiums, you won’t be paying for 100 per cent of damages.
Lesson: save for the future but don’t dip into your holiday fund.
5. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Nobody likes to read the fine print but it is there for a reason. That message is reinforced through a series of events laid out in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as well as the 2005 version starring Johnny Depp.
The musical fantasy follows young Charlie Bucket and four other children who win a golden ticket to visit a chocolate factory, teaching us about good and bad along the way. However, before they — and the accompanying adults — can enter the factory, they must sign a liability waiver shrouded in legal terminology.
When the children are injured, factory owner Wonka shrugs off his responsibility. He even tells Charlie he is no longer entitled to his prize, a lifetime supply of chocolate, because he breached the contract he signed at the start.
Whether it is for an app or a credit card, we are all Charlie when we sign legal contracts in real life. The fine print is often the only place where many financial institutions explain what they are liable for, what incentives they receive and what investment and management fees they charge.
On a credit card, for example, 10 per cent cashback on every purchase may sound great, but reading the fine print will reveal any caps to the maximum refund available, writes Carol Glynn, founder of Conscious Finance Coaching, in a column for The National.
A contract may say you receive 10 per cent or Dh25, whichever is lower — which means you receive Dh25 in cashback, not Dh100, on a Dh1,000 transaction.
Sometimes, the fine print makes it difficult to understand what you are actually signing up for. In such cases, it is best to make a list of questions and ask the institution’s representative before signing up to avoid missing out on that lifetime supply of chocolate when it is too late.
Lesson: always read the fine print.