NEW YORK (MainStreet) — With Christmas just a week away, one surefire way to get into the holiday spirit is curling up and watching your favorite seasonal flicks. Some of these movies make us laugh, others make us cry and most of them impart valuable pieces of wisdom to help us live a better life. Being that MainStreet is a personal finance site, we thought we'd look even deeper at a few popular holiday films to find out what they have to say about money. As it turns out, there are many profound financial lessons in movies like It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and even Elf (no, seriously, we're not kidding). Here are some of the best lessons we learned from a few of our favorite holiday films.
Movie: A Christmas Story
Lesson: A gift's value is in the eye of the beholder
Released in 1983 but set in 1940s Indiana, A Christmas Story is the hilarious tale of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quirky family as they prepare for the holiday season. Ralphie is desperate to receive a Red Ryder 200 Shot BB gun from Santa (even though adults insist "you'll shoot your eye out!"), but Ralphie isn't the only member of the Parker family who becomes fixated on a gift.
When Ralphie's dad receives a much-anticipated "major award" in a contest, he opens it up and discovers that the prize is a sexy lamp in the shape of a woman's leg. His father worships the lamp as if it's a piece of rare artwork, calling it "indescribably beautiful," but Ralphie's mom (not surprisingly) despises the lamp and finds it unsightly and offensive. One day Ralphie's mom "accidentally" breaks the lamp while watering a plant and, well, you can imagine what happens next. His dad freaks out, and his parents engage in a hysterical war of words. Even though Ralphie's mom denies purposely breaking the lamp, she angrily calls it "the ugliest lamp I have ever seen in my entire life."
Movie: It's a Wonderful Life
Lesson: Wealth isn't measured by the size of your wallet
Even though it plays over and over again on TV each holiday season, it's hard to get through the beloved 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life without shedding some tears. The legendary Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a good man who gave up his own dreams to take over his dad's modest building and loan company in his hometown of Bedford Falls. Through the years George's business has helped the wholesome town stay out of the hands of a greedy businessman, though George doesn't truly realize his profound impact on Bedford Falls until a bizarre experience occurs.
On Christmas Eve, George's business is on the verge collapse and he contemplates suicide. He is also in danger of going to jail for bank fraud after his uncle misplaces $8,000 of his business's cash funds. As George is about to jump into a river and end his life, his guardian angel Clarence saves him and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he were never born—and it's not pretty.
In the end, George begs to be born again, and he is able to return home. He embraces his wife and kids, now understanding how blessed he is despite his money troubles. As the authorities get ready to arrest George, George's friends and other people from town flood into his home and donate money to save George and his business.
George realizes that he's actually the richest man in town, because he has so many loyal people in his life. As his guardian angel Clarence inscribes in a book he gives George, "[N]o man is a failure who has friends." It's a lesson we can all learn from. A rich, fulfilling life is one characterized by meaningful relationships, not money and possessions. That's especially important to remember considering the amount of debt the average American has.
Movie: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Lesson: Don't always count on that big Christmas bonus
Poor Clark Griswold. Despite his genuine efforts to create the perfect holiday season for his family, nothing seems to go his way, from getting locked in a freezing cold attic for hours while his family goes Christmas shopping to receiving an unannounced visit from his wacky, freeloading cousins. And let's not even get started on the holiday lights and Christmas tree disasters. But arguably the worst thing that happens to Clark in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is his "Christmas bonus."
Clark is so certain about receiving a huge Christmas bonus this year that he puts down money in advance to build a swimming pool in his backyard; however, this turns out to be a very foolish move. When Clark receives an envelope from his company just before Christmas, he expects it to be his big Christmas bonus, but instead he discovers that his boss has enrolled him in the Jelly of the Month Club. Clark understandably becomes enraged, but the truth is that when it comes to bonuses, you've got to see it to believe it. Sometimes bonuses aren't as big as we had hoped for—and sometimes we don't end up receiving any bonus at all. Or, as in Clark's case, sometimes our "bonus" is a sorely disappointing gift that we really don't want anyway. We suggest you avoid making grandiose plans for how you'll spend your big Christmas bonus until you actually have that check in your hands.
Lesson: Don't put your job before your family
In the adorable film Elf, Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human being who was given up for adoption and transported to the North Pole after sneaking into Santa's sack as a baby. Buddy is raised as one of Santa's elves but finally discovers his true human identity as an adult.
Dressed in full elf garb, Buddy leaves the North Pole and sets out on an odyssey to find his biological father, Walter, a surly, workaholic businessman from New York who frequently neglects his wife and other son, Michael. Buddy's father does not know about Buddy's existence and is horrified when he finds out he has a grown son who looks like one of Santa's helpers. To make matters worse, Buddy blows a very important business meeting for Walter by mistaking a short-stature potential client for an elf. The client storms out (after beating up Buddy) and a livid Walter tells Buddy to "get out of my life."
In the end, though, Walter does come through for Buddy. After Buddy goes missing, Michael urges Walter to leave a crucial business meeting to help look for Buddy. When Walter finds Buddy in Central Park, he apologizes to Buddy and acknowledges him as his son. Walter leaves his corporate job to start his own publishing company and releases a book about Buddy's adventures.
The financial lesson from this fun flick is pretty clear. Always put your family first before your job—even if they do prance around in a green dress, yellow tights and pointy shoes. After all, your job won't love you back, but your family will.
Movie: Home Alone
Lesson: Keep your home secure
Home Alone has that magical quality of being heartwarming, funny and slightly sadistic all at the same time. While precocious 8-year-old Kevin McCallister was undeniably charming on-screen, the homemade booby traps he used to take down two idiotic criminals attempting to burglarize his home were pretty brutal to say the least. After all, some of the injuries that the burglars sustained included a steam iron to the face, a blowtorch to the head, BB gun shots to the forehead and a sharp nail to the (bare) foot. Ouch!
Of course, in real life break-ins, homemade booby traps probably won't cut it. Because Kevin's family lived in an affluent neighborhood, we think they ought to have set up a home security system, which would have saved Kevin a whole lot of trouble warding off those criminals. To keep your own home secure, you can consider paying for a traditional alarm system or look into creating your own security system, which can be done through the use of smart devices and apps. For more detailed information on how create your own security system, check out this MainStreet article.
--Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet