Financial Lessons from the Movies – Pursuit of Happiness

Through the ages, a lot of wisdom has been passed down generation to generation by story telling. Humans have gone from sitting around the campfire listening to the tribal elder relay fables to watching movies. We learn lessons every day from watching movies.
I love rags to riches stories so you can imagine that Pursuit of Happiness, starring Will Smith and his son is one I enjoy.  Actually I bought it to use in my 2013 Grandma Rie’s Money Camp. At the time, my camp participants (my two grandchildren and one of their cousins) were 9, 9 and 5 years old. After reviewing the movie in preparation for camp I decided that the lessons kids that age would most likely learn from the movie were ones I did not want them to learn.

The movie is the inspiring story of a real live person, Chris Gardner, based on his autobiography of the same name.

Gardner is a salesman, selling portable bone density scanners, which he purchased with his life savings. The mother of his son (age 5 in the movie) leaves him and Gardner decides to take a non-paid internship at a brokerage firm to take a stab at a better life. The viewer follows his journey through the trials and tribulations of his experience – going from having a rental apartment to homelessness while pursuing the end goal of becoming a Dean Whittier broker.

What are the financial lessons that can be learned from Pursuit of Happiness?

Be persistent.

One of the positive lessons that I do want my grandchildren to learn is the art of being persistent.

In the movie, Gardner shows persistence in multiple ways. He keeps on plugging to sell the portable bone density scanners that he purchased with his life’s savings – even though he found out after he bought them that doctors consider them a luxury. He also pursues gaining the knowledge and contacts needed to be a successful broker with great diligence. On the non-financial front, he steadfastly interacts with his young son as a caring and teaching parent.

The lesson.
Persistence is one of the most important factors in achieving financial stability.

Believe in your dream and yourself.

Another positive lesson for my grandchildren would be the movie’s focus on Gardner’s pursuit of his dream for a better life. Gardner is presented as a knowledge seeker, a smart man continuously trying new things. He has studied the product he sells and has learned good sales techniques. He believes he can get to a better life, even when his child’s Mother does not, and everything around him falls to pieces.

The lesson.
If you don’t believe in your own abilities no one else will either and you will never accomplish your potential.

Take on appropriate levels of risk.

In the movie, Gardner risks his life’s savings on a batch of portable bone density scanners. He apparently did not investigate the potential market for this product before buying all of them and found out only after he started trying to sell them that doctor’s considered them a luxury item and weren’t eager to buy one for their offices.

Instead of trying to find a job paying a regular wage, knowing his little family was at risk on taxes, rent payments and more, he took an unpaid 6 month internship – banking on his ability to sell enough bone density scanners to tide them over.

The lesson.
Don’t bet on the physical needs and safety of your family. Pull together a basic survival strategy prior to shooting for the stars with a new position.

Plan and organize your activities.

Gardner’s story points out multiple instances where he failed to plan and organize his activities for financial gain.

He didn’t schedule his sales calls to allow time to find appropriate parking. Instead, he parked close to the hospital in no parking zones and accumulated tickets – eventually spending the night in jail for non-payment of those tickets. In the movie, he excused it by saying:

“That’s what happens when you are always in a rush”

Instead of putting aside some money to pay taxes on the equipment sales, the movie depicts him filing an extension to delay payment. In reality, you still have to send the check in even if you do file an extension on the paperwork. By delaying payment, he incurred the additional charges of interest and penalties.

He continually neglected to pay for his rooms, resulting in homelessness. Although he did not have the money to pay, it would have been better for his son if he had found some kind of a job to work which would have allowed him to keep a roof over their heads.

When he gets the phone call to tell him he was accepted into the Dean Whittier internship he is asked to call a number in the morning. He searches desperately to find a pencil and paper to write down the number, but can’t locate them in time. He should have made plans to keep the necessary supplies next to the phone.

Later in the story, after he chases down and retrieves a stolen bone density scanner, he neglects to test it to see if it still works before trying to sell it.

The lesson.
Even if you are dirt poor, you should think about what you need to do and try to plan for eventualities that might come up. Keep your things in proper order and they will serve you better.

Communicate about finances with your significant other.

The movie showed Gardner and the boys Mother only meeting at dinner. He didn’t communicate his vision of his future to her and she didn’t communicate her uneasiness with the risks he took to him. She didn’t buy into his dream and he didn’t buy into her desire to plan and organize. He announced that he was looking into a broker job, but didn’t discuss it with her or consider the impact to her.

The lesson.
Learn to talk with each other about finances before things reach a critical stage. Use tools such as questionnaires to help you explore each others money story. See if the M Word book will help you by reading my review of it.

Perform some research before deciding on a career.

One day, as he was trying to sell the scanners, he watches a flashy red sports car pull up and park. He stops the driver and asks just 2 questions – what do you do for a living and how do you do it. The driver answers with two words. The guy is a stock broker. With that, the movie Gardner looks around at the crowds on the sidewalk next to the brokers office and thinks to himeself:

“They all looked so damn happy”

With no more research than this, he decides to pursue an internship as a broker. He doesn’t know the intern’s pay (zero), or the salary of a broker. He doesn’t know what is involved in being a broker. He doesn’t know the requirements to become a broker.

The lesson.
Before spending time or money in pursuit of a career, do some research to find out if it is a fit for you, how long it might take you to prepare and the cost of getting there.

Take care of your things.

When he decides to go apply to be a broker intern, he walks by a street musician and just leaves his expensive bone density scanner with her. He gives her a dollar to watch it and tells her it isn’t valuable. Of course she walks off with it. The movie does acknowledge that this was a stupid action.

The lesson.
Plan ahead to make sure that you can protect financial resources that you need.

This movie did teach financial lessons, but some of the lessons were in reverse – seeing the actor do things that damaged his financial position. These types of lessons do help, but I think they are more appropriate for older children (not to mention that there was a scene with the ‘f….’ word).

What financial lessons do you think Pursuit of Happiness teaches?