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Scenes From a Life

Jim Wasserman  |  November 1, 2019

ONE SUNDAY, my son was lamenting that he had a school project due the next day, but hadn’t yet taken any steps to get it done. When I asked what his plan was, he replied, “I could use a really good montage right about now.”

For those who aren’t procrastinating teens with a father who delves into media literacy, a montage is a series of quick shots in a TV show or movie that accelerates time around a theme—that theme often being the effort and time expended to achieve a goal. Think of the athlete training for the big event, the artist trying to create, the business group trying to formulate a project, or even a building slowly going up. One sees the passage of time condensed on screen, perhaps with a brief stumble or glint of frustration along the way. But in the end, there’s the assured and ultimate victory.

Such shows always detail the end result, but the long road to success seems summarized. Why is it truncated? You know why. It’s boring. It’s tedious. It’s often discouraging. Most of the time, those on the journey have no assurance of where the road will end.

But that’s life.

Think of the things you enjoy right now. A good relationship with a wonderful partner? It wasn’t built in a moment’s stare into each other’s eyes, but rather from working through issues, everything from easy ones about the kids to tough ones about the best way to load the dishwasher.

Most people who visit sites like HumbleDollar are already attentive to financial issues. But what are the messages that movies and TV shows give to the average money handler?

  • Wealth is often suddenly and fortuitously thrust upon someone.
  • Saving is shown in a quick montage, starting with a few cents in the piggy bank and then—poof—the couple have the money they need.
  • Spending for today is shown as rewarding and yet later there’s almost never a financial reckoning.

To be sure, no single depiction will cause a viewer to become a spendthrift. But just as stalagmites are slowly formed by constant dripping, so too are our attitudes about money. There are many factors at play, but movies and TV shows aren’t helping. As a media literacy geek, I could demand that entertainment be more financially realistic. But—speaking of being realistic—people want to see the fun parts of life. It’s why few documentaries are blockbusters.

How can we nudge ourselves along the long, uneven path of saving and delayed gratification? Perhaps we should treat our financial life like a movie, especially when we’re at that fork in the road where there’s a choice to spend or save:

  • We hear a Rocky-like theme song as we delay spending’s immediate pleasure and instead struggle to keep the money in our wallets. Alternatively, we could have a general theme song to our life that reinforces the notion that everything is part of a long-term plan. My choice is Green Onions.
  • We could imagine an audience is watching us as we make that spend or save decision. In fact, there may really be an audience—consisting of our children, whose money habits will be influenced by what they see.
  • We have a cutaway “stumble” scene in our montage where we spend too much. Then we shake our heads, pick ourselves up and get back on the savings path.

It’s also important to leave room for a sequel. We achieve our short-term savings goal, so we climb the stairs and raise our arms in victory. There will, however, be other, greater challenges ahead. We might even be laid low and have to struggle to reclaim our earlier victory. But we will prevail.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Changeup PitchBored Games and Shame on Us. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy,  Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.

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