6 smart-money lessons from holiday movies

From 'A Christmas Carol' to 'The Grinch,' these classics offer valuable tips to share with your family

Money lessons from holiday movies

You watch them year after year. Curled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn or a mug of cocoa.

Holiday movies are like flannel jammies: Warm, comfortable and predictable.

But did you know that many holiday movies and shows also have a few smart-money messages tucked in between the family feasts and runaway sleds?

Sometimes they’re as obvious as the red nose on a certain reindeer’s face. Other times, so subtle you might have missed them. 

Here are six smart-money messages hiding in your favorite holiday shows and movies.

 See related: 5 books, 4 movies to learn more about personal finance

1. 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving'

When Charlie Brown gets roped into hosting a Thanksgiving dinner he can't afford and doesn't know how to prepare for guests he didn't invite, it turns into a fiasco. And the result (featuring toast prepared by chef Snoopy), is not the holiday feast his guests are expecting.

The smart-money takeaway: It's always better to be on the same page. Whether it’s a dinner or planning for retirement, no one has the same expectations.

“There’s a lot of value in people sitting down and discussing personal and financial goals,” says Eric Tyson, author of "Personal Finance for Dummies." “The average person doesn’t do that.”

Couples, especially, need to discuss plans and expectations, Tyson says. “Different people can have very different understandings of terms like 'retirement' or even 'vacation,'” he adds.

That’s why it’s so important to speak up and spell out everything. So, whether it's something big and long range (like saving for retirement), or a shorter-term goal (new car, vacation), hash it out and look for manageable, transparent solutions that make you both happy.

Because, unlike the Peanuts gang, you might not receive a last-minute invite to Grandma's house that saves the day.

2. 'The Grinch'

Based on Dr. Seuss’s classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” this is the story of a hairy green monster who lives apart from society and comes into town only to raid houses and make off with the valuables.

While it seems more like Halloween fare than a classic children’s holiday tale, "The Grinch" is a fast, funny ride. And it delivers a sweet, timeless holiday message about kindness and the importance of family and community.

The smart-money takeaway: This one shares a philosophy with "A Charlie Brown Christmas," says Tyson. Namely that the holiday “shouldn’t be about who’s getting what.”

At the end of the day, “it’s about spending time with family and friends,” he says.

To make that a little easier, he encourages people to “be proactive” by talking with family members and setting some expectations and limits on gifts.

That way, you can look forward to the celebration without worrying that you’re expected to blow your budget or make room for things you don’t need or want.

See related: Don't let your credit score suffer a holiday hangover

3. 'Trading Places'

This 1983 comedy is not your typical Christmas movie. A couple of wealthy curmudgeons bicker and bet on whether nature or nurture conspires to make a man rich. So they arrange it so that Eddie Murphy’s down-and-out Billy Ray Valentine essentially switches lives with Dan Aykroyd’s feckless but filthy rich Louis Winthorpe III.

What the two old boys really learn: Pitting people against each other can backfire on you. (And never bet against Aykroyd and Murphy.)

The smart-money takeaway: Be proactive against identity theft, says Jeff Richardson, vice president of marketing and communications for VantageScore Solutions.

From adopting savvy everyday habits – like covering your PIN when you enter it, regularly reading your three credit reports, and using text or email alerts to notify you of transactions or account changes – to making some long-term, big-picture moves – like freezing your credit report – there’s plenty you can do to make sure someone can’t step into your own financial shoes.

One smart step Richardson recommends: Freeze credit reports for any of your minor children. Children’s credit histories have become a valuable commodity among scammers, he explains. And since they won’t be able to use credit until the hit 18, victims of childhood ID theft sometimes don’t discover the crime until years after the fact.

Another plus for parents: Credit freezes are now free.

4. 'A Christmas Carol'

Whether you prefer the 1951 black-and-white Alastair Sim version or Bill Murray’s 1988 Scrooged, there’s a version of this Charles Dickens Christmas staple to suit just about every taste.

The smart-money takeaway: Just as there are a dozen different film and TV renditions (remember the one with Mr. Magoo?), everyone gets a little something different out of the story.

As Scrooge finally realizes with his employees, “you want to make sure you’re taking care of the people who are taking care of you,” says Richardson. And give back to the people who are less fortunate.

One way to fund that: Set a little aside each month throughout the year, says Russell Graves, executive director of National Foundation for Debt Management. “You really need to plan for it.”

But his favorite takeaway from the film has little to do with money or finance. “And what’s truly important is the family – keeping the family together,” he says. “In 'A Christmas Carol,' the happiest family was not Scrooge with his millions of dollars and his counting house. It was the Cratchits, who had Tiny Tim.”

5. 'It’s a Wonderful Life'

This 1946 three-hanky black-and-white holiday film tells the story of a small-town man called George Bailey – played by Jimmy Stewart – who seems to have given up on life – until an angel helps him see his own life from a different perspective.

“This is one of my favorites,” says Andy Byron, senior financial adviser and principal for HC Financial Advisors Inc. “I think I watch it every year.”

The smart-money takeaway: “There’s a scene where George’s son comes in and says the neighbors have a new car. And George [basically] says, ‘What’s wrong with our car – isn’t it good enough?’”

“It kind of struck a chord with me that we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses,” says Byron.

6. 'National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation'

This one is a classic tale of how bad money decisions can impact your life. Although most of us don’t wind up kidnapping the boss.

Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is so convinced that his Christmas bonus will be a hefty check that he spends the money sight unseen on a pool for the family. So, when his cheapskate boss instead gifts him with a subscription to the jelly-of-the-month club, Clark’s plans – and sanity – unravel.

The smart-money takeaway: “I think there’s something to be said for not spending that end-of-year bonus before it’s actually in your hand,” says Richardson. “Or not spending it at all and saving it.”

While Chase exaggerated the situation for comedic effect that bait-and-switch bonus still resonates with plenty of people.

“Certainly, there have been times in my career when I thought my bonus would be one thing and it was something else,” Richardson says.

His advice: Take that check (whatever it is), and put it aside. That way you’ll have a cash cushion for whatever happens in 2019. And that’s no joke.

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Updated: 12-19-2018