April 16, 2024

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Netflix recently debuted a new documentary about personal finance aptly titled “Get Smart With Money” directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Over the course of 90 minutes, we follow four stories about people struggling with different money issues — debt, living paycheck-to-paycheck, lack of income and not knowing how to invest, and rising expenses while trying to pursue early retirement (FIRE). 
The four main characters are paired with a financial coach — Paula Pant from Afford Anything, Ro$$ Mac, Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche, and Pete Adeney, who is often referred to by his moniker, Mr. Money Mustache
Aside from being a good watch, “Get Smart with Money” shares six smart lessons anyone can use to improve their finances. 
Everyone dreams of earning a ton of money. That was the case for Teez, who says he knew that one way he could earn a lot was through football. Reaching success at the early age of 21, the film states he originally earned $1.6 million. That number quickly went down after paying taxes, buying a home for his family and one for his mom, and taking various trips. 
When Teez meets with coach Ro$$ Mac, he has approximately $280,000 left of his original sum. Teez doesn’t have money invested for the future and is worried about the longevity and stability of his career and providing for his family. 
Watching this story, it’s clear that high earnings are not the only goal and route to financial success. Keeping those funds and putting them to work for your future is key. Ro$$ Mac teaches Teez about opening a brokerage account and investing in the stock market. 
When you make good money, it’s easy to think it’ll always be that way. But through Teez’s story, we hear about how he made good money through football but then got released and then injured. Suddenly he had nothing coming in. 
Hence, the sense of urgency with making the remaining $280,000 last as long as possible. No one likes to think about the next job loss or health scare that can drastically impact one’s finances. But it’s something we should all be prepared for, just in case. 
Not having money coming in is a scary reality for everyone, with different degrees of difficulty. An emergency fund and disability insurance can help shore up your personal finances and ensure you’re able to weather this kind of storm.
But just as your circumstances can change for the worse, they can eventually change for the better. We see Teez eventually get to play football again and earn an income. 
Debt is a monthly payment that can keep you in the past. But paying off debt can change your future, too. In the documentary, we meet Ariana, who identifies as an emotional spender and admits to being afraid of money. 
She recalls growing up and having parents who taught her “we deserve this” whenever they spent money. That mentality led to spending more than she could sustain. 
Ariana is in credit card debt and has over six figures in student loan debt. We see the shame and guilt erupt on her face as she tries to cope with paying off debt while raising two children. She mentions how her husband covers the bills and works overtime so half of her income — $2,000 — can go toward monthly debt payments. 
At one point, Ariana describes taking out a personal loan to pay off credit cards. But once those limits were freed up, she got back into the debt cycle. 
Tiffany Aliche, AKA The Budgetnista, works with Ariana to come up with a plan to divide her check and budget for all her obligations through automation. 
On top of that, The Budgetnista shares a rubric of questions to help rein in Ariana’s spending: 
Ideally, we want to focus on “needs” and “loves.” Throughout the documentary, we see how much Ariana wants to change her financial situation, not for herself, but for her family. Not working all the time, limiting stress, and going on vacation — one of the dreams she shared with Tiffany when thinking about what she’d love to do with her money. It’s clear that paying off debt can change her future. 
We meet Lindsey, who is living paycheck-to-paycheck despite working 50 hours a week with two jobs. As a bartender/waitress, her wages simply don’t cut it. Her food spending on takeout is also high because she’s tired from working so much and being in the food industry. 
One poignant part of her story is not having the necessary health insurance coverage to treat her depression and anxiety. 
When she meets with coach Paula Pant, she shares that she wants to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and pursue her dreams as an artist. Paula encourages her to get some gigs together ASAP through dog-walking, and pursue her art in the long term. 
One brilliant idea that would allow Lindsey to do both was for Lindsey to sit in a park and sketch a dog and give the portrait to the owner, with her contact info on the back for dog-walking. 
As her journey progresses, we see her earn more money through her art and dog-walking. She even starts selling prints of her paintings — something that Paula refers to as “scalable” as the painting was created once, but Lindsey can sell the prints over and over again. 
For low-wage workers, self-employment is one way to break through the ceiling. We see that in Lindsey’s story, and it’s something I resonated with as well. I left my nonprofit job earning $31,000 per year in 2014 to be a freelance writer. In the next year, I doubled my income and was able to pay off my student loan debt thanks to having a higher income, which has grown since. 
“Get Smart with Money” follows John and Kim, a married couple with two children. After becoming unemployed during the pandemic, John transitioned to being a stay-at-home parent — and both John and Kim are adjusting to their new roles and financial reality. 
While John takes care of the children and household duties, a refreshing perspective rarely caught on screen, we see Kim earning good money through her business. She earned $70,000 just a few years ago and was on target to hit $300,000. 
These are classic high-income earners by many standards, but as we see in the documentary the couple admits to earning more and then spending more. There’s a hefty food budget and lots of Amazon purchases and the couple admits to using spending as a reward or to manage stress. 
Lifestyle inflation can be natural, but unchecked and too much can cause misalignment. Mr. Money Mustaches tells the couple that we all have a “Purchase Justification Machine” where our brains will do the mental gymnastics to justify whatever purchase our heart desires. 
The couple set their sights on early retirement, and with the help of Mr. Money Mustache, cut $3,000 per month in expenses. 
John and Kim took the first step by cutting their expenses by a significant amount. But they realized that with their lifestyle and desire to pursue FIRE, they needed to make more moves. As in actually moving. 
We see the couple downsize their home to lower housing costs and turbocharge their investments. 
Moving is expensive and not something everyone can do. But if it’s possible, downsizing homes or moving to an affordable location can significantly lower costs. For this couple, that was the right step in order to get closer to FIRE and, in turn, have more flexibility with life and work. 
Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.

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