Preparing for a recent airplane flight, I downloaded the new Netflix documentary: Get Smart with Money.
I recognized some of the people involved, and I was excited to see how people’s lives were transformed through the help of a committed personal finance coach.
First, I give tremendous kudos to the people who were brave enough to share their money struggles for a production film.
They picked households from a range of incomes and they all shared one thing in common: they felt out of control with their money.
That’s a nearly universal issue. We all wrestle with money to a small or large degree. Our challenges are different, but we all have them, whether due to scarcity or abundance. Yet few of us are brave enough to share our intimate relationship with money.
The film is inspiring for the hard-won wins of its four sets of students.
This documentary really did a great job of telling four stories with plenty of raw emotion and clarity. By the end of one year, each hero’s journey progressed with hard work and focus.
Lindsey starts her journey working two jobs totaling 50 hours a week as a waitress. If she’s earning $14 per hour that puts her exactly at the average US income in 2020 dollars of $35,000.
In truth, this feels far from the middle-class American dream, let alone her own dreams to leverage her creative thirst for art and fashion. Over the course of one year, with the help of Paula Pant, she finds a way to start practicing and selling her art, painting murals outside the restaurant where she works, and selling at a crafts market.
Along the way she builds her confidence, learns how to build her network, and earns enough cash to attend to her mental health. That’s inspiring!
Teez navigates the ups and downs of a lucrative but lumpy sports career.
He is drafted for the Detroit Lions and brings home a $1,600,000 paycheck which he rapidly spends. With the help of Ross Mac, he learns the power of investing.
Cautious to put even $1,000 into the stock market, he grows in confidence and puts a plan together to stash, not spend, his money knowing that his income stream as a football player could end without notice from an injury or bout of poor performance. By the end of one year, he’s enjoying investing more than he ever enjoyed spending, and he’s feeling like he has a grasp of his future.
Kim and John work are scrambling as he stays home tending to two young kids and she earns $300,000 as a life coach.
They’re growing their spending just as fast as they grow their income, leaving them wondering where this rat race is headed despite being in the top 4% of US households based on income.
Pete Adeney (Mr Money Mustache) is a valuable sounding board that gets them to think about their goals. While he’s the epitome of austere living and little spending, they decide success for them is neither radically early retirement nor spendy exuberance.
They find their own balance that involves a smaller house, lower monthly expenses, but also some coveted goals like a multi-week family vacation to Costa Rica. I especially love that they defined success on their own terms, even though they’re quite different than the terms of their penny pinching coach Peter.
Finally my favorite story might be Ariana.
She loves to spend and has dug herself $30,000 into credit card debt. Very relatable. The average American has $5,000 in debt.
Ariana is forthcoming and honest about her troublesome shopping journey, and the brilliant coach Tiffany Aliche shares her own similar background while helping Ariana rethink what she buys. Tiffany has her figure out her needs (food, gas) and loves (which have enduring value to her life) and her likes and wants (that provide a brief dopamine hit but no more).
She then has her start allocating her paycheck into four checking accounts: bills (needs), discretionary spending (loves), debt reduction, emergency savings, and dream savings (long term loves).
By the end of one year Ariana has paid off most of her debt, built an emergency fund, and regained her confidence with money. Go Ariana!
There are a few moments where I had to groan.
There’s a suggestion that Lindsey could take on some gig work on top of her already crazy 50-hour-a-week jobs, and that she might try selling her art as nonfungible tokens (NFTs), a fintech curiosity that’s impractical for someone without a following.
Kim and John try to cut their spending by going to Costco with their kids, but having shopped at Costco I know that the real savings isn’t the Costco membership, it is the hard decision to buy caviar and wine versus beans and rice. And those decisions are easier if you don’t bring your kids!
The film ultimately does a great job telling four money stories.
Four households. Four different relationships with money. Four paths towards progress. I left reminded that everyone is working to find their path towards financial success, whether their an overworked waitress or a professional football player signed on with the NFL.
One sobering thought is that all of these struggles are with incomes at or above the median. Lindsey makes the least money of the four subjects, and yet her income is right at the average US income per capita. Life below the average per capita income of $35,000 is really tough, and yet that’s the reality for the other half of America today.
What would I like to see in a sequel?
I’d love to see these stories transcend their own stories into stories about others. How their progress as individuals spills over into their spouses, partners, and kids. And then how these households spill over into opportunities for giving and service to others.
Maybe it’s a category for charitable giving. Or maybe it’s something even more inspired. Teez started to talk to younger athletes about their money, a powerful way to pay it forward. I would love to see where that evolves.
When we feel in more command of our finances, I think our power to give of our time and money to others in need becomes an incredible lever for good.
The power of story is incredibly valuable as a motivator for the changes we all want to make. If you have a story of transformation with your money, I’d love to hear it. Truly! Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.