This week, I went to see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and watched with an eye toward personal finance lessons. Looking for money wisdom in pop culture is a habit of mine.
Frugal? That too! I’m getting paid to see movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
While it’s definitely a popcorn romp in which a whole lotta stuff gets blowed up real good, life lessons are there: teamwork, fortitude, caring about your fellow man.
Money matters are there, too. Enjoy the popcorn, but absorb the lessons.
1. Cooperate with colleagues
When the Avengers face what looks like an unbeatable foe, one of them asks how they can possibly defeat it. “Together,” replies Captain America (Chris Evans).
If a work project looks unmanageable, don’t moan about unfairness or squabble about who isn’t pulling his weight. Break it down into sections that play to each worker’s strengths, then dive in and get the job done.
2. Beware the fast talker
Early on, inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) proposes a potentially dangerous idea, and the more cautious Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) isn’t buying in. Stark talks faster and faster and hammers home the “we have only three days to make this work” and the “for the good of mankind” themes.
Because Stark is such an egocentric character, it’s hard to say whether he really believes that the project will protect humanity. It could just be that he wants to know if his theory is correct. If it isn’t, mankind is headed for a heck of a mess — and even if it is, there’s no way to tell whether the result is workable over the long haul.
If someone’s trying to get you to invest in a “sure thing” or to do something ethically or legally questionable, he or she may create a sense of urgency or employ a “from great risk comes great rewards” argument.
Listen to your gut: If you think something’s a bit off, get out of there. Sure, you might risk missing the next big thing. You might also avoid the next Bernie Madoff.
3. Coffee cannot replace sleep
A montage indicates that Banner and Stark work for three days straight. A haggard-looking Stark sips what one assumes is a caffeinated beverage and wonders what step he has missed in the project.
Guess what? That project doesn’t end well. (If you’ve seen the trailers, this is not a spoiler.)
A whole lot of folks burn the candle at both ends and in the middle, working tons of hours and trying to shoehorn in family time, side hustles and maybe even higher education. Something has to give – and it just might be your budget, because people with little to no free time often wind up spending more money on meals outside the home and having to outsource basic chores.
They make some questionable choices, too. For details, see “How Sleep (Or Lack of It) Can Affect Your Bottom Line.”
The other thing that might collapse under the strain: your health. That’s not a cheap fix, either.
4. Have a backup plan
Save for a rainy day. Or, maybe, for the day when all kinds of stuff is raining down from the heavens thanks to superheroes bouncing off skyscrapers and throwing trucks at cars. At one point Stark muses, “How quickly can we buy this building?” because he knows he’s about to level it.
Fortunately most of us don’t bring down multistory edifices, but we can expect things to go wrong. Automobiles break down, kids get sick, appliances need replacing.
A basic emergency fund will take care of most problems. The more you save, the more prepared you’ll be. No one expects to find his car vandalized. But if that happened to you tomorrow, would you be able to come up with the deductible?
Today isn’t forever. Just because things are going well for you now doesn’t mean you’ll always have the world on a string. Invest your money carefully; if one part of your portfolio goes south, the rest will keep you solvent.
In addition, create a workable budget so you can live well but also well within your means. This will help you save up that emergency fund, and it also guards against lifestyle creep: If your hours are cut or you are laid off, you’ll be equipped to manage until times are better.
5. Patience is a virtue — learn it
The screening was preceded by at least half a dozen long movie trailers. (I stopped counting after the Adam Sandler one.) I thought the audience was going to start chanting, “We want the show! We want the show!”
(I also thought I might be the one leading the chant, but that would have been unseemly for someone my age.)
Your finances won’t fix themselves the instant you decide they need fixing. Get a plan in place and watch your dollars, not the clock. Solvency may take time. But it’s utterly worth it.
6. Get real
At one point Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) faces an army of robots out to destroy all humans. “And I’ve got a bow and arrow,” he muses. Acutely aware of the odds, he decides to fight on, but he picks his spots.
Ever been tempted to think, “I’ll be in debt until I die, so I might as well have some fun?” Don’t play that way. Instead, take a hard look at your income, expenses and debts and explore ways to create a sustainable budget. The emphasis is on “sustainable,” because a budget doesn’t work unless you can live with it.
The folks at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling are good at running the numbers and coming up with ideas you may not have considered. They might also be able to negotiate with your creditors for lower interest rates.
7. Walk it off
During a particularly grim battle scene, Captain America advises his colleagues that in case of injury or even death they should “walk it off.” Given what was at stake – the fate of humankind – no whining was allowed.
Sometimes money issues hit one after the other: a relative’s wedding, car repairs, medical deductibles, a dead appliance. Your budget is bleeding. You’re irritated beyond belief and tempted to think, “What the heck – I’m already deep in the poo, so why not treat myself to something fun? I deserve it, after all this stress.”
Don’t do that. Think of the big picture, i.e., your overall finances and your master plan. Take a deep breath. Rerun your numbers and devise frugal hacks to reduce the pain of the recent budgetary hit. No whining allowed. Walk it off.
8. Move on
At some point each of the Avengers is tormented by the past. The dysfunction takes its toll right when the heroes need to be at their sharpest.
Suppose you lost your shirt in the last recession. That’s enough to keep anyone from investing in the market again, right? Or say you lost your job in your early 50s, and you can’t shake the feelings of fear and humiliation.
Even if you’re in a genuinely tight spot, you cannot let the past control your present – or your future. Educate yourself about money, talk to a financial or employment specialist, get therapy if you need it. Don’t let bad stuff keep you down. Otherwise you won’t be ready when the potential for good stuff presents itself.
9. Accept help if it’s offered
At one point the battered heroes desperately need a place to recuperate and regroup. Hawkeye knows a place, well off the beaten track, and the people who live there are generous about sharing the spot.
Would they rather be out in the thick of things, crushing crime? Sure. Would it have been smart to do so without some rest and a coherent plan? Nope.
When things go south and a friend or relative offers to lend resources or money, be willing to accept. “Be transparent with others,” advises Bob Sullivan, rather than pretending that everything’s just fine. That way you don’t run through dwindling resources and then have to seek aid in panic mode.
(For more tips on crisis management, see “Lessons From the Layoff: Plan For Disaster and Be Humble Enough to Ask for Help.”)
Be sure to show your appreciation, especially in concrete ways. In a brief but amusing scene, some of the Avengers split stove wood for the homestead. So if you’re bunking with someone temporarily, tidy up and cook meals; should your sister spot you some cash, offer to take the kids off her hands for a few hours now and then. Think of it as a thank you note with tangible benefits.
10. Play the hand you’re dealt
At one point a character says, “You hope for the best and make do with what you get.” That’s personal finance in a nutshell.
Heck, it’s life in a nutshell. Sometimes you get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It’s not fair that your workplace shuts down or you get hit by an uninsured motorist. Maybe somebody should have told 18-year-old you about how tough it can be to pay off student loans.
“Fair” doesn’t enter into it. It’s what you have. Face it, figure it out and find ways to keep from staying stuck.
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