Learning about money can feel a lot like swallowing harsh medicine: It's supposed to be good for you, but the taste is dreadful. Want the same lessons with a spoonful of sugar?
Pull up a chair and make some popcorn. Movies, it turns out, can deliver some sage financial advice. These aren't dull documentaries. Some classic and not-so-classic but enjoyable films -- "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Big Lebowski" and "Josie and the Pussycats," to name a few -- can teach you a bit about contrarian investing, estate planning, the high cost of divorce and other important topics.
"Almost every movie has lessons about priorities, problem solving, integrity, compassion," said Nell Minow, author of "The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies." "And trust that, if you watch carefully, they will tell you even more about handling your money than learning the difference between a Roth IRA and a 401(k)."
Here are eight such tales, some inspirational, some cautionary. Watching them might not make you rich, but if you learn their lessons, your own money story is more likely to have a happy ending.
"Mary Poppins" (1964)
Save some, spend some, give some away.
In this movie, siblings Jane and Michael Banks have a classic problem: They've got just a few coins -- and everybody has a different idea about what they should do with their money.
Their dad, a banker, wants them to save it to learn about the wonders of compound interest. Their nanny wants them to think about giving to the less fortunate. The children themselves would like to buy a little something to play with at the park.
Like most people on a budget, Jane and Michael have limited options. They need to set goals, make choices and acknowledge that they can't get everything immediately, said Michael Eisenberg, a certified public accountant in West Los Angeles.
Virtually anyone with a reasonable income can accumulate enough to be able to save a little, spend a little and give a little to charity -- without going into debt. But getting there takes time.
"You can have it all," Eisenberg said. "Just not all at once."
THE MOVIE "Brewster's Millions" (1985)
The power of compound interest.
This modern fairy tale, which first appeared in a 1903 book by George Barr McCutcheon, is so popular that it has been made into a movie at least seven times. The latest version stars Richard Pryor as a baseball player in line to inherit $300 million.
The catch: He is first given $30 million that he must spend in 30 days before he can receive the much larger fortune. The theory is that he'll get so sick of spending the money that he'll end up a worthy heir.
(A 1926 version called "Miss Brewster's Millions" was about a model and movie extra before whom a $5-million payoff is dangled.)
But spending even the smaller fortune turns out to be incredibly difficult. The reason: compound interest. Every time Brewster turns around, his money is earning money faster than he can spend it.
Not many average Americans suffer from this problem, but they can -- if they play their cards right, experts say. All they have to do is start saving when they're young.
Consider a 25-year-old who starts saving $500 a month. By age 65, assuming a relatively conservative long-term average return of 8% a year, she has $1.55 million. At that point, she's like Brewster: She can live on just the interest earned on her money -- a comfortable $78,000 a year assuming a 5% return -- and never get around to touching the principal.
"The power of compounding is phenomenal," said David Wray, president of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America. "It doesn't have to be hard to accumulate a lot of money for retirement, you just have to start early. If you wait until you're 50, it's going to take real sacrifice."
THE MOVIE"Stranger Than Fiction" (2006)
It's easy to miss valid tax deductions.
Howard Crick is an IRS auditor who discovers his life is the plot of an unfinished book in which he is destined to die. To change his fate, Crick develops a relationship with a pretty bakery store owner he is auditing, who has withheld part of her income tax as a protest.
This cute fantasy has one very real element: The baker, it turns out, has missed loads of viable tax deductions.
That's distressingly common, experts say. For example, the Government Accountability Office estimates that 27% of taxpayers eligible for deductions or credits that would help finance college tuition fail to take advantage of them.
"If somebody is trying to do their own tax return these days, it's clear that they're not going to take advantage of all that's out there," Eisenberg said. "If you have a simple return, you can probably do it on your own or with software. But people with sophisticated issues really need a professional."
THE MOVIE "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) --
Buy low, sell high.