To start things off let me define what I mean when I say "involving financial independence". It's difficult to find any film that purely talks about financial independence based on how the FIRE community commonly approaches it. That is by budgeting well, staying out of debt, and investing in the index over the long term. Let's be honest, it wouldn't make much of a movie. So what I've done instead is pick out a few scenes or moments from various movies or shows that I enjoyed as a whole, yet still gave me some food for thought when it comes to financial independence.
If you're concerned about spoilers let me warn you now that I do describe the movies or the scenes in a little bit of detail. Some more than others. So if you want to give things a watch before reading this article, save the bookmark now and come back later. Here's the list for you to work through:
The Gambler (2014)
Fight Club (1999)
Futurama: A Fishful of Dollars (1999)
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The Big Short (2015)
The Banker (2020)
The Gambler (2014)
The Gambler stars Mark Wahlberg as Jim who is someone who sees very little reason in trying to do something in life if you can't be exceptional at it. This makes him rather self-destructive and one of the ways this manifests is through high-stakes gambling.
To fund his habit he ends up borrowing large sums of money from various loan sharks, but loses it all. Needless to say, when it comes time to repay his debt he ends up in a bit of a pinch.
Jim decides to approach another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman), to borrow more money in order to try and buy a bit more time for himself.
Upon hearing Jim's story of previously being on a winning streak at the casino and then losing it all, Frank decides to give him a lecture on fuck you money:
"You get up two and a half million dollars, any asshole in the world knows what to do: you get a house with a 25 year roof, an indestructible Jap-economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at three to five percent to pay your taxes and that's your base, get me? That's your fortress of fucking solitude. That puts you, for the rest of your life, at a level of fuck you. Somebody wants you to do something, fuck you. Boss pisses you off, fuck you! Own your house. Have a couple bucks in the bank. Don't drink. That's all I have to say to anybody on any social level."
I think Frank's lecture would resonate well with anyone working towards financial independence as all we're trying to do is build our fortress that allows us to be out of the system.
The only thing I would disagree with Frank on is his comment that "every asshole in the world knows what to do."
Fight Club (1999)
Looks like I'm going to have to break some rules but Fight Club is a film where the main character, The Narrator (Edward Norton), is feeling discontented with his white-collar job; we all know the feeling.
Eventually he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt) who tells him he is trapped by his material possessions. The two go on to start Fight Club, with Tyler ultimately recruiting the members into an anti-materialist organisation with the aim to erase everyone's debt.
Tyler comes out with a quote that sums up how society feels in the present day when it comes to people feeling like they're stuck in the rat race with no greater purpose in life:
"I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables - slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war... Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
I agree with him. We are slowly learning that fact, and those of us who have are now doing all we can in order to regain our financial freedom.
Moneyball is based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis that talks about the Oakland Athletics baseball team's 2002 first place finish in the American League West. Along the way they went on a 20-game win streak.
This was a highly impressive feat but what's even more impressive is the fact that the team didn't really have any star players, or big names, comparative to the other teams in the league.
The reason they managed to achieve this record and win first place was thanks to a completely new method of scouting thought up by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill):
"Okay people who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins and in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs."
What Peter is talking about here is the fact that other managers are spending big money during the drafting rounds on players who are considered to be promising by their scouts. But the problem is that it's mostly based on hype, and the valuations of those players are often excessively high.
By looking at things more statistically Peter hypothesises that it's better to buy multiple "less promising" players who are undervalued instead of one star player for a huge price, as they will collectively produce a similar number of runs or maybe even more.
For those of us working on financial independence we can frame this in terms of picking hot stocks in hopes of a big win versus buying a bunch of normal "uninteresting" stocks that rise steadily over time.
We all know that indexing is better than trading, and more importantly we know that indexing is based on a long history of data that gives us a strong basis to forecast forward from.
Futurama: A Fishful of Dollars (1999)
This is probably my favourite scene out of them all, not only because I loved watching Futurama back in the day but because this totally went unnoticed by me since I was still too young at the time and without any financial education.
I only came across it again by chance when a clip was suggested by the YouTube algorithm. Best of all, the math actually checks out.
Fry, the main character, only has $0.93 in his bank account in 1999 and then accidentally gets frozen in time for 1,000 years. By the time he gets out the world has drastically changed and becomes all futuristic with flying cars and whatnot.
Eventually Fry notices the bank he has an account with is still in business and decides to try to withdraw money.
As it turns out, after 1,000 years of accruing interest at an average of 2.25% each year the compounding returns has grown Fry's account to around $4.3 billion. To verify this we can do the math:
$0.93 x (1.0225^1000) = $4,283,508,449.71
Not quite $4.3 billion which is quoted in the episode but the show producers were probably rounding for efficiency in the dialogue.
For people pursuing financial independence through compounding investments this brief moment in the episode is a little hidden treat. Obviously you can be cynical about it and state that inflation wasn't taken into account, but that would take away all the fun!
At the very least, it does effectively show the power of compounding over long periods of time.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
The 2010 Wall Street movie is a sequel to the original 1987 movie staring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas.
In the first Wall Street movie, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) was a legendary figure who sat at the pinnacle of Wall Street. But he achieves this through unsavoury means such as insider trading, blackmail, and fraud.
Although an extremely wealthy person he eventually gets caught by the authorities and gets put in prison, losing everything.
In the 2010 sequel, Gekko's prison term has come to an end and he is released back into the free world. He spends the following number of years trying to rebuild his life, but no longer holds the sway or power he once did in Wall Street.
However, it turns out that his daughter has a trust fund worth £100 million that he set up in the 1980's and hid in Switzerland. Using his underhanded tactics he eventually gets his hand on this money and leaves the country to set up an investment company in London, and is able to grow the money to $1.1 billion.
For the topic of financial independence, Gekko's preparations - albeit underhanded - are the main focus despite him not being the main character in the movie. The reason he was able to eventually bounce back was because he managed to hide a stash of wealth away just in case.
For us, that's essentially an emergency fund. We may not have one as large as Gekko, and we wouldn't do the things he did in order to get ahead, but the point still stands.
If you lose everything or come under exceptional financial strain, your emergency fund that you set aside is something that could help you overcome the monetary challenges in due time.
The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006)
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true life of Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith, who struggled to make ends meet and ended up being homeless while trying to raise a young son.
Gardner initially invested his entire life savings into some medical equipment that he intended to sell to doctors as an improvement over the standard X-ray machines. While he is able to make sales, he isn't able to do so quickly enough to meet his day-to-day financial needs.
Worst of all, his financial needs are ever growing due to various incidents and due to him needing to take care of his son. Unfortunately, even after selling all of the medical equipment he invested in he is eventually left homeless after getting evicted.
Fortunately for Gardner he gets a chance at an unpaid internship as a stockbroker where he would be among 20 people competing for a single paid position. Through working exceptionally hard, and developing a number of ways to be more effective, Gardner ultimately wins the position and is able to rebuild his life from there on.
From a financial independence perspective the entire film has many lessons to offer.
While it's nice that things eventually worked out well for Gardner, it wasn't exactly a smart move to bet everything he had on the medical equipment. On the surface it might have looked and sounded good, but the reality was something else entirely.
We can think of this in terms of new and "exciting" investments that the markets sometimes offer. We hear a lot of hype and noise due to their rising popularity, often because of rapidly rising valuations, and are tempted to jump on the bandwagon out of a fear of missing out.
But if we're not careful and if we don't consider our short term financial needs, we could end up struggling to make ends meet while holding an "asset" that we're desperately trying to get rid of without a loss.
The other thing I take from this movie is the incredible perseverance of Gardner. He encounters huge set backs and difficulties yet continues to give it his all in order to forge a path towards a better life.
This is definitely something to look up to and something I think we should all aspire to emulate, even just a little.
The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short is another film based on a book by Michael Lewis and focuses on the 2008 US housing bubble that eventually led to a huge financial crisis.
It follows 3 different investment funds, Scion Capital, FrontPoint Partners, and Brownfield Capital, who are trying to figure out if the US housing market is not as stable or as healthy as it appears on the surface.
The film gets into some technical details on the various different assets that were being traded and swapped at the time such as mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and synthetic CDOs.
While complex, the point the film was making was that the products being marketed and sold were purposely convoluted and confusing in order to cover up the poor quality of the individual contents within them, such as highly leveraged mortgages that people wouldn't be able to afford for the long term.
In an amusing scene, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) the hedge fund manager of FrontPoint Partners is doing field research by talking with a stripper who believes she can keep refinancing her mortgages in order to keep her payments low. But the problem is that this is dependent on the house prices continuing to rise, which has already started to slow.
These were the types of mortgages contained in the complex products such as CDOs. And the punchline of that scene was that the stripper had 5 houses plus a condo that she needed to keep up payments for.
Over at another hedge fund, Scion Capital, a position to bet against the US housing market has already been opened by shorting the mortgage-backed securities. This was done by the fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who read through the contents of the products and deduced that the mortgages were all extremely risky.
The position opened was larger than $1 billion which required Scion Capital to pay huge monthly premiums to the major investment banks in order to keep them open.
But the problem is that even when people started defaulting on their mortgages, the mortgage-backed securities containing them were not being updated by the investment banks to reflect the drop in value. This meant that Scion Capital needed to keep paying the monthly premiums despite knowing that the products should have already crashed in price as they were expecting.
From a financial independence perspective there are two things to take away from the film.
The first is to keep your investments simple and straightforward. The investment markets will offer all sorts of complex products in order to tempt you in, with many people touting how easy it is to make money.
That may be the case at first, but it's unlikely to stay that way in the long term. And if things seem too good for too long then chances are something really bad may be about to happen, such as a bubble in the market finally popping.
The second is how markets can sometimes remain irrational despite you doing the research and believing that the underlying fundamentals don't add up to what's happening in reality.
Scion Capital eventually made their profit after the investment banks finally re-valued the mortgage-backed securities to be more reflective of the low-quality mortgages contained within, but there was a real chance that Scion would've needed to pull the plug on their position if they couldn't maintain the monthly premiums.
This goes to show that even if you do all the research and all the preparation, and even if you're ultimately right, it is still extremely difficult to perfectly time the market.
The Banker (2020)
It wouldn't be right to make a list that didn't involve real estate investing, so the last movie to mention is one I watched earlier this year starring Anthony Mackie as Bernard Garrett.
Garrett wants to use his intelligence and skill with numbers to become a successful real estate investor, believing he has what it takes to make a fortune. There's just one problem... he's a black man in the 1960's meaning he's up against some severe racial discrimination.
Garrett is well aware of this yet remains determined to break through in order to give other African Americans a chance to pursue the American dream, a part of which is becoming a homeowner.
By teaming up with a wealthy club owner who is also a black man, Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) they devise a plan to use a white man, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), as their frontman while Garrett and Morris disguise themselves as a janitor and a chauffeur.
The plan works and soon they become very successful and wealthy real estate investors in Los Angeles. Eventually their focus turns towards battling the systemic racism of segregated neighbourhoods by selling or renting their properties, located in "white neighbourhoods", to other black people. Some of whom were deprived of loans and homeownership simply because they weren't white.
They continue to build and expand until eventually Garrett wants to buy a bank in his local hometown of Texas, again with Steiner as the frontman, with the intention to provide more equal opportunities in terms of economic opportunities for other black people.
Unfortunately, systemic racism ultimately leads to Garrett's and Morris's being sent to prison. But at the very end they're eventually released and there's a bit of a happy ending where they're both able to move to the Bahamas where they have homes, bought with money they had entrusted to Matt before they were locked away.
The film is great for the topic of financial independence because so many participants of the FIRE movement look at real estate as a means to achieve their goal.
In the film we see Garrett slowly building up his property portfolio and even doing some works on them in order to raise their value. This is something I think would bring a smile to anyone who's in the business of property flipping.
Most importantly is the underlying tone of homeownership being one of the most important avenues for the underprivileged to gain a better life. Regardless of if you lean towards renting or towards buying as the better long term "financial option", none of you will argue that a secure roof over the head is an integral part of true financial independence.
If anyone were to ask me to recommend a bunch of films or TV shows to watch, regardless of if they were interested in the topic of financial independence, most of these if not all would definitely be included.
It just so happens that some of these also contain great scenes or background stories that resonate with the FIRE movement in some way or another.
So if there's any on this list that you haven't seen before, definitely put them on your watch list.
But don't focus too much on reading into what personal finance tips might be gleaned from them. Just enjoy the watch and trust that your FIRE senses will naturally pick up what's important!