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5 Smartest Financial Lessons Found In Great Novels

by Lisa Rabasca Roepe

March 20, 2017

Education and Technology:

Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.

Learn more

If the thought of curling up with, say, The Warren Buffett Way isn’t appealing, but you want some decent financial advice, take heart: there are plenty of valuable lessons to be gained from fictional characters in popular novels. Here are five lessons about how finance work— from classic and contemporary works.

Money doesn’t buy happiness

In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the incredibly wealthy Jay Gatsby throws lavish parties at his mansion, yet it’s clear that he and his wealthy guests aren’t particularly happy or satisfied with their lives.

Excessive wealth won’t necessarily bring you closer to happiness, says Carla Dearing, CEO of Sum180. However, she says, everyone needs enough money to feel secure. For many of us, having financial security contributes to our overall sense of well-being and peace of mind. “Money is deeply emotional,” she says. “Our upbringing and emotional triggers can have a great effect on how we deal with our money.”

Instead of focusing on a dollar amount as your savings goal, Dearing recommends setting a personal goal that is dependent on money to be achieved, such as saving to pay for your child’s college education or being able to live in Paris for six months after you retire. “Know yourself, understand your priorities, and set clear financial goals,” she says. “Then build a plan to get to those goals.”

Don’t count on an inheritance

In The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, four siblings expect to each receive a $1 million-plus inheritance when their youngest sibling turns 40. A year before they expect their windfall, their oldest sibling gets into a car accident and their mother, who is the executor of the fund, decides to use the money to pay off the victim of the car crash. Now each sibling will only receive $50,000 each. This has major repercussions for two of the siblings who counted on the money and made financial decisions—without telling their spouses—that leave them financially vulnerable.

Treat your inheritance like a year-end bonus, not a guaranteed source of income, says Kelley C. Long, CPA, financial planner with Financial Finesse. Long says clients often exhibit this type of behavior with their income tax returns when they count on that money to pay their car insurance bill or pay the cost of a luxury vacation.

Don’t create financial risk by making bad decisions, warns Christine M. Searle, certified internal auditor and owner of Searle Business Solutions, LLC. By depending on something you think is a sure thing (but isn’t) you may incur debt by spending money you don’t have, she says.

Don’t treat your money with childish contempt

In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield decides to leave school without telling his parents. He goes to New York City, checks into a hotel for three days, and carelessly blows his cash. 

Without realizing it, parents can lead their children to adopt a casual, thoughtless, or even contemptuous attitude toward money

“Without realizing it, parents can lead their children to adopt a casual, thoughtless, or even contemptuous attitude toward money,” Dearing says. The best way to teach kids about money is to set boundaries. “It’s best to start setting boundaries early by teaching your children to be self-reliant when it comes to money, and to respect its value,” she says.

If sufficient boundaries aren’t set, even adult children will continue to depend on their parents for financial help, Dearing says. It’s not uncommon for parents to continue to help their grown children pay their student loans, auto payments, and smartphone bills, she says. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that while households do increase their retirement savings after their children leave home, the increases are extremely small because they continue to pick up expenses for their children.

If you lose your job, don’t wallow in the drama

In The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Rachel Watson is fired from her job, but she is afraid to tell her roommate. Each morning she pretends to commute into work (with a thermos full of booze), Rachel’s time and money should be spent on something that has a potential return on investment, such as updating her résumé, networking, and interviewing for jobs, Searle says.

“It’s okay to take a couple of days and wallow,” Long says, “but you need to get back out there and look for a job.” Confide in someone you trust and ask him or her to hold you accountable, she says. Keep in mind that, even when you’re laid off, you often still have access to your employee benefits for at least a month. If your company offers an employee assistance program, take advantage of that benefit and ask for help dealing with your emotions around being let go and having to look for a new job, Long says.

Spend within your means, or misery will ensue

Most literature majors study Gustave Flauebert’s Madame Bovary as a work of literary realsim, but there’s enduring economic realities tucked inside this French classic. After a series of tragic events, the titular Madame B. attempts to soothe her wounded psyche with the 1860’s equivalent of compulsive shopping. Her overwhelming debt not only contributes to her own death, it latches on to that of her husband, and eventually, the financial avalanche tumbles onto her daughter, who is forced to work in a cotton mill make ends meet.

Sure, Madame Bovary’s financial destruction is epic, but it’s easy to overspend, particularly if you’re in the throes of denial and avoiding payments, hoping you’ll somehow be “rescued.”  Dearing says. One method for becoming aware of your spending patterns is to use a spending tracker app such as Mint, LearnVest, or Level Money. “Once you know where your money is going, it’s easy to realign your spending to your priorities,” she says. “You can also spot places to cut back.”

You don’t need a dozen credit cards, says Cary Carbonaro, certified financial planner and author of The Money Queen’s Guide: For Woman Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear.  Turns out you only need three: a debit card, a credit card (a la Visa or Mastercard), and a charge card (like American Express.) If you love to shop, she recommends forcing yourself to a 24 waiting period before making a purchase. (Which means avoiding that tempting “one-click” option available on Amazon and other sites.)

Debt is easy to obtain, Long says. “You can go from zero to $10,000 in debt in a day but can’t go from $10,000 to zero in even a year,” she says. “Paying off that debt is like trying to lose 35 pounds. You have to stick with the program and make small changes.”

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