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Family Finances

10 Great Movie Rentals That Will Pay You Back

Here are some timeless classics from which we all can learn valuable personal-finance lessons

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of a story that first appeared on Kiplinger.com in January 2010. Enjoy Oscar night -- and please pass the popcorn!

The stage is set for the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday, March 7. So let’s roll out the red carpet for some past Oscar winners and contenders that can teach you about money. Here are 10 movie rentals (plus two bonus choices) that weave tales of personal finance, enterprise, career advancement, life, and death with lessons from the timeless “vault” of Kiplinger’s personal-finance wisdom.

We’re all about helping you to a prosperous future -- paying yourself first, staying out of debt, protecting your loved ones and giving generously to create a better world. In that spirit, we’d like to thank Hollywood, the Academy and all the indie filmmakers out there for these cinematic gems. The envelopes, please (and please share your favorites in the Comments box below):

GRAN TORINO (2008) One of Clint Eastwood’s best films may be one of his last, both as a director and actor. Eastwood plays Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker still hurting from the death of his wife. With his Highland Park (Mich.) neighborhood now dominated by immigrants, the embittered Kowalski hurls invectives from his front porch like missiles, hauling out his rifle when gangs tresspass on his lawn. Walt’s grumpiness extends to his own immediate family, who he feels are trying to force him into a nursing home to get their hands on his house and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. Be warned: The movie isn’t easy to watch at times, with nonstop racial slurs and scenes of violence. But Walt’s redemption, found in his love for his lost wife and his deepening friendship with the Hmong family next door, make for a powerful movie. Guess who gets the house, the car, and Walt’s beloved yellow Labrador? They all end up where he thinks they will do the most good. LESSON: Write a will. Two-thirds of Americans neglect to tackle this basic estate-planning chore. Don’t let a court divvy up your assets by default.

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AUNTIE MAME (1958) Here’s the sunnier side of estate planning -- from a lost corner of American culture. This movie provides a vivid reminder, in today's rough times, that “life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!,” as the free-spirited protagonist famously declares. The story revolves around an orphan who goes to live with his dead father’s eccentric sister, an aging '20s-era flapper who drives the executor of dad’s estate crazy with her joie de vivre. Rosalind Russell owned the role, both on Broadway and in the movie, which garnered her a special lifetime Oscar in 2008. Truly a treasure of its era (remember when the grown-ups acted like this, baby-boomers?) And all you fans of TV’s “Mad Men,” this movie will give you even more of a perspective on how your parents and grandparents were behaving before John F. Kennedy was shot and the Beatles arrived. LESSON: With investments, our personal finances, our careers, we never know where life is going to take us (just look at the past two years) So be prepared as best you can, protect your loved ones, and learn to adapt.

To view this trailer click here.




MAXED OUT: HARD TIMES, EASY CREDIT AND THE ERA OF PREDATORY LENDING (2006)
You’ll never feel so free about forking over a credit card again. And that’s a good thing. This independently made documentary is riveting as it explores America’s dangerous love affair with credit and leveraged debt, presaging the meltdown of 2008. Like being a “preferred” credit-card customer? This movie shows you why “chump” might be more apropos. In one scene, a Las Vegas real estate broker explains why she’s building a 10,000-square-foot home even though she’s not sure she’ll be able to afford it if interest rates go up. “If you look like you’ll make money, I guess eventually you will,” she observes. Priceless. LESSON: Borrow sparingly. Do you know anyone who got into big financial trouble because they didn’t borrow enough money? We don’t.




CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC (2009)
Ditsy Rebecca Bloomwood (played by the incomparable Isla Fisher) has 12 credit cards, all maxed to the hilt. She thinks nothing of using plastic to buy $200 worth of Marc Jacobs underwear because “underwear is a basic human right.” Then, in a plot twist only Hollywood could dream up, she becomes a writer for Successful Saving, a magazine that sounds an awful lot like Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Coincidence? We like to think not. See how Rebecca erases $16,000 in credit-card debt and finds Mr. Right, without Mr. Right providing a financial bailout. It sometimes veers toward personal-finance psychobabble, but even Janet Bodnar, editor of Kiplinger’s, liked this movie. LESSON: Use credit only to buy things of lasting value: a home, an education, maybe a car. For everything else, pay cash.

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MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)
Tom Hanks and Shelley Long starred in a 1980s remake entitled “The Money Pit.” But we like the original best. Ad man Cary Grant moves wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) and their two daughters to a charming fixer-upper in Connecticut from a cramped New York apartment. End of story? Fat chance. Just the beginning of a hilarious saga about the reality of the American Dream. Even Muriel’s quaint request for a “little dry place to repot my plants” turns into an expensive ordeal of ripping out tile floors and installing drains. But there’s a happy ending: Maid Gussie’s declaration “If it ain’t wham, it ain’t ham” serves as the inspiration for a winning (and lucrative) ad campaign that allows Mr. Blandings to enjoy the fruits of country living in his dream house. LESSON: Owning a home comes with a great deal of responsibility, starting with good credit, a substantial down payment and the means to protect your investment.




ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2005)
Before Bernie Madoff, there were Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, chief executives of a high-flying Houston “energy” company that was all about appearing to be stable and highly profitable when it was neither. (Enron actually didn’t “do” much of anything other than create impenetrable shell subsidiaries.) As Enron stock prices soared, top execs cashed out stock options worth millions, leaving employees with Enron stock as the only investment option for their 401(k) retirement plans. When the company collapsed, countless investors lost everything, and the retirement savings of thousands of Enron employees was wiped out. It’s a wrenching story that will make you angry. But the movie, which earned a 2005 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, is “almost indecently entertaining," observed A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Investors, you must see this movie. LESSONS: (1) If an enterprise seems too good to be true, it probably is. (2) Diversify, diversify, diversify your portfolio. Never put all your eggs in one basket.




WORKING GIRL (1988)
What we most like about this endearing ’80s film is the career advice. Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith in the best role of her career) takes a job with rapid advancement possibilities -- or so her investment-bank boss (Kevin Spacey) claims. She soon realizes all the company wants is a sexy secretary. Watch how Tess combines her business degree (from night school) and acumen with her Staten Island street smarts to engineer a mega-merger deal. There’s the usual sappy, Prince Charming happy ending, with Harrison Ford as Tess’s Wall Street love interest. But it provides an entertaining reminder that if you have something to offer your company and they don’t seem interested, there’s likely a market for your services elsewhere. Note in the final scene how Tess treats her replacement once she makes it to the top -- a good lesson there, too. LESSON: Your earning power, rooted in your education and job skills, is the most valuable asset you’ll ever own. It can’t be wiped out in a market crash. Keep your earning power growing through continuous education, training and personal development.




THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)
Try watching this classic western as a cautionary tale about how not to launch a business venture. In fact, you could take everything that Howard (Walter Huston), Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) do in this classic to get rich quickly, do the opposite, and have something close to a credible business plan. LESSON: Don’t swing blindly in pursuit of a home run. In life, as in baseball, you’ll more than likely strike out. Always do your research and, for heaven’s sake, know your business partners.

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MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
In this classic, a determined but misguided middle-class mom (legendary actress Joan Crawford in the lead role) cuts her husband loose and sets out on her own to support her two children. She works her way up from waitress and pie maker to restaurant mogul, but her life becomes all about providing a more lavish lifestyle for her sulky daughter. On the way to the top, Mildred compromises her principles and loses almost everything dear to her. Nominated for six Academy Awards in 1945, this film won Crawford her only Best Actress Oscar. The movie has largely been forgotten. Too bad. It’s a great story about personal finance. (And if you like it, you might also try I Remember Mama (1948), another forgotten classic starring legendary actress Irene Dunne. Make sure you have plenty of Kleenex on hand, though.) LESSON: In your quest for financial success, don’t lose sight of what’s most important in your life. Maintain a lifestyle and budget that protect it all.




IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1947)
This Frank Capra masterpiece, cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films ever made, comes up on virtually everybody’s best list here at Kiplinger, and not just during the holidays. You probably know the story by heart. But why is George Bailey toasted as “the richest man in town” at the end? He’s certainly not a likable fellow throughout the movie. As his dreams are stifled by small-town life, he turns bitter, suicidal and verbally abusive to his wife, children and poor old Uncle Billy. Yet, unlike bitter Old Man Potter, who only sees money as an end in itself, George comes to see it as a means to creating happiness for others. (You might also try Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim. It’s the best movie version ever made of this Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol,) LESSON: When you share your good fortune by donating your money, time and talent to charity, you help create a stronger economy and a healthier, safer world.