Words to Live By

Don Southworth

ONE OF MY FAVORITE end-of-the-year rituals is watching Turner Classic Movies’ annual memorial to those in the film business who have died during the past year.

Each year, I’m reminded of people who have entertained and often strongly influenced me. It’s four bittersweet minutes of smiling, crying and reliving memories. Movies, and especially holiday movies, have been as important in inspiring and teaching me as any scripture I’ve ever read and any sermon I’ve heard or given.

Two actors who died in 2022 were in two of my favorite movies. Virginia Patton, the last living adult actress from the best movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, died in August. She played George Bailey’s sister-in-law, Ruth Dakin Bailey. James Caan, who played Buddy’s biological father Walter in Elf, died in July. Like most characters in holiday classics, they taught us lessons about love, selfishness, generosity and greed—lessons that can be helpful in all parts of our lives, including our financial lives.

Caan played the stereotypical self-centered businessman who had lost the spirit of the season. Patton had a small role in the movie with a handful of lines. She lets George know that the main reason his brother Harry married her was to go into plastics, where he could make lots of money. He does; George doesn’t.

Most of us didn’t make a lot of money this year if we were invested in the stock and bond markets. (I’m not sure about those in plastics.) I find the last few weeks of the year are a time of complex emotions and to-do lists. A time to celebrate, to remember, to mourn, to plan, to share and reflect on what’s come and what we hope will come next. No matter which holidays or movies we embrace.

My contemplation this year, after watching TCM Remembers, made me think of some of my favorite holiday movie quotes. Maybe not surprisingly, they offer as much wisdom for investing as they do for living.

“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends,” says Clarence, George’s guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The first time I heard this line I broke into tears. I saw the movie in my early 20s when I was early in recovery from the financial and spiritual heartbreak caused by my compulsive gambling.

Clarence gives George a new lease on life, reminding him that his friends made him far richer than those with much more money. It’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of. Failure comes often and easily in life, in work and in investing. If they’re the main things we focus on, life will look bleak. If we focus on love and friendship, spending as much time cultivating those as we do our portfolio, we’re always ahead at the end of the year.

“Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind,” offers Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

“And what happened, then? The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day and the true meaning of Christmas came through,” the narrator tells us in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

No list of holiday quotes connected with finances would be complete without including Santa and the Grinch. Every year, financial pundits wonder if we will get a Santa rally or a Grinch “rally.” Of course, Santa always carries the Christmas spirit, while for the Grinch it takes some time. Every Christmas movie on my list of favorites has the same message shared in different ways—savor the spirit of the season and give it away all year. Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas, Santa or the Grinch.

But the frame of mind and true meaning they teach transcend religions, movie scripts and investing advice. Think of others and be generous. Be grateful for what we have and practice kindness every chance we get. Look at the world with wonder, anticipation and joy. Help someone whenever we can and love even more. Aren’t those the real reasons we spend our time and money working, making money and learning how to invest?

The last two quotes come from Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol. No matter if you prefer the 1938 version with Reginald Owen, 1951’s version with Alistair Sims (my personal favorite) or 1988’s Scrooged with Bill Murray, Dickens’ story reminds us that all work—and no play or compassion—aren’t good for anyone.

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” declares Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is talking about his transformation after being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. But it’s hard for me not to read those lines and think of our financial lives.

Too often, when we make investing decisions, we choose to look at past results, go after the current hottest fads or speculate wildly about what will happen in the future. At least I have from time to time. Scrooge reminds us to keep learning, to remember the lessons we have learned and to be open to learning new ones. And doing all of it while being grounded in the values we hold dear.

This year, the lessons of old haven’t always held true. (If stocks are down, aren’t bonds supposed to be up?) Still, if we hold on to what matters most in our lives, it can help us to remember what matters most in investing as well—hew to the long view, with some humility and caring thrown in.

“God bless us, everyone.” I leave you with these words, which come from Tiny Tim. No matter how large our net worth, what religion we do or don’t practice, or which god we do or don’t believe in, may we remember our blessings and shower them on others. I’ll see you at the movies.

Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @Calltrepreneur and check out his earlier articles.

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