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Show me the money! – 12 financial lessons from our favourite films (and TV series)

Published 3 October 2014 by

When you’re looking for advice about your finances, it can be difficult to know who to listen to. It can seem like everyone has an opinion, not least some of your favourite films and TV series.

We’ve put together a list of our top personal finance lessons from the world of Hollywood and television - but remember, before you make any serious decisions about your money, you’re always advised to speak to an expert.

Spoilers may lie ahead.

Film – Catch Me If You Can (2002) – Lesson: “Don’t fall victim to identity theft”

In this high-speed drama, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a confidence trickster who poses as a lawyer, a pilot, and a doctor to scam people out of millions of dollars. In reality, identity fraud isn’t this glamourous - at least not for the victim. Protect yourself against identity theft by using strong passwords to access your online account management and contacting your account holder if you see any unusual activity on your statements.

Film – Moneyball (2011) – Lesson: “Budget carefully”

This film follows the general manager of baseball team Oakland Athletics Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he tries to build a successful side with the lowest salary budget possible. Working with an economics graduate (Jonah Hill), he assembles a team of talented but flawed players to save money and wins a record 20 games in a row. While most of us don’t have to manage the budget for a baseball team, we can still learn an important lesson from this film. By planning a budget around all your bills and expenses, you’ll be able to work out how much money you have left over for luxuries like holidays and nights out.

Film – Burn After Reading (2008) – Lesson: “Take care of your sensitive information”

After this movie’s main character Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) – an ex CIA analyst – loses a CD containing personal information, events spiral out of control as he tries to get it back. Be careful about where you store any personal or sensitive files, and who you give access to these. It’s Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) who accesses the files as part of her divorce proceedings against him, so be sure to keep your passwords to yourself.

Film – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) – Lesson: “Don’t be naïve, be careful who you trust”

This classic Disney film may not seem like a lesson in financial security at first glance, but it actually contains an important moral about trust. Snow White falls into an enchanted sleep after biting into a poisoned apple offered to her by a stranger, though it’s actually the Evil Queen in disguise. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble if she’d been more careful with who she trusted. If you take out a loan or sign up to an account with someone without fully knowing if they can be trusted, you could end up losing money or having your identity stolen.

Film – When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Lesson: “The grass isn’t always greener”

The “I’ll have what she’s having” scene may be iconic for many reasons, but it also teaches us a lesson about how we view others’ financial situations. It can sometimes seem like friends or family members have perfect lives, and you may be encouraged to try and change our own finances to try and match theirs. However, you usually don’t know the full story and most things aren’t as perfect as they seem. Before you make any drastic financial changes to try and keep up with the Joneses, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Film – The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Lesson: “Be prepared for life changes”

Though this movie shows Chris Gardner (Will Smith) doing everything he can to provide for his son after he loses his family’s investments in bone-density scanners, he could have avoided his difficult financial situation if he’d had an emergency fund. If you’re planning on any life changes, such as having a baby or giving up your job, it’s probably sensible to make sure you have a ‘rainy day fund’ in case of any financial emergencies.

TV show – Downton Abbey (ITV) – Lesson: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”

In the popular period drama, head of the Crawley family Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) loses the estate’s money after the company it is invested in, Grand Trunk Railway, goes bankrupt. The estate is eventually saved due to downsizing and better money management, but Lord Grantham learns a valuable lesson about investing. It’s unwise to invest all your money into one company or fund, as you’ll have nothing to fall back on if the company goes bankrupt or its stock value falls. And remember, if you’re planning to invest it could be worth chatting with a financial advisor first.

TV show – Friends (NBC) – “Factor in the small cash payments”

Throughout the 10 series of Friends, the six main characters spend a lot of their time in local café Central Perk. Though the friends often complain about money being tight and needing to budget, they never cut out their frequent coffee breaks, and must spend thousands at the café over the 10 seasons. This shows that when you’re making a budget, you need to account for the small everyday cash payments you make, such as snacks at work or coffee out with pals. Though these payments may be small amounts individually, they can soon mount up if you haven’t factored them into your monthly budget.

TV show – The Big Bang Theory (CBS) – “If you’re married, big purchases need to be decided together”

When engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) purchases a $5,000 3D printer without telling his wife Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), she takes him off their joint account. If you’re married or share finances with your partner, you need to make sure that any big purchases are decided together. Before you open a joint account, set up ground rules for any expensive purchases so that one of you isn’t spending unfairly – and putting both of your finances at risk.

TV show – Breaking Bad (AMC) – “Keep your money in a safe place”

Walter White (Brian Cranston) isn’t a great financial role model, and not just because he makes his money creating illegal drugs. He also saves all his money in giant barrels out in the desert, where anyone could potentially access it. The safest place to keep your money is in a savings account, where no-one will be able to get it just armed with a shovel, and where it is also protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

TV show – Game of Thrones (HBO) – “A Lannister always pays his debts”

In the popular fantasy TV series, the Lannisters are one of the most hated and bloodthirsty Houses of Westeros, but they are perhaps best remembered for their unofficial motto: “A Lannister always pays his debts.” More often than not, this is meant in a more personal and negative sense, but it’s still sometimes used for its original meaning. If you take out loans or credit, it’s important to make sure you repay them on time, otherwise it could have serious repercussions for your credit score and live you struggling financially.

TV show – Mad Men (AMC) – “Live within your means”

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may be one of the most iconic TV characters of all time, and as the creative director of an advertising agency he commands a pretty high salary. But despite that, he still struggles to support his high-class Manhattan lifestyle. Living within your means can be tough, and whilst it doesn’t mean never treating yourself to anything – just be sensible with your money and try to minimise any unnecessary outgoings, especially close to payday.