7 Financial Lessons From Breaking Bad
The hit TV show "Breaking Bad" will leave a lasting legacy as one of the most intense and popular shows on television. Watching Walter White and associates descend deeper into meth madness week after week has been truly entertaining. (See also: Financial Lessons from "Sons of Anarchy")
But it's also been educational from a personal finance standpoint.
Suffice it to say, Walter White made a lot of questionable decisions. And while we're probably never going to make a foray into making crystal meth, many of his choices can offer helpful lessons in money management for the average, law-abiding citizen. From preparing for disaster to investing your money and how to deal with unexpected wealth, there is much to learn from the craziness of Breaking Bad. Here are seven lessons to take away from the madness. [Caution: Spoilers Coming]
1. Practice Good Estate Planning
Walter White began cooking crystal meth because he got an unexpected cancer diagnosis. He wanted to pay off his medical bills and make sure his family was taken care of.
There are obviously better ways to plan for a bad event.
Life insurance is something everyone with a family should have. Do you have enough coverage? Look into setting up an annuity or other vehicle that can result in consistent payments to your family if the worst should happen. (See also: How to Buy Affordable Life Insurance)
Another big piece of estate planning is your emergency fund. Do you have enough cash in the bank to get through a tough period? Many financial advisors suggest putting away at least six months of salary.
A Roth IRA is a great way to save for retirement due to its tax advantages, but it also comes in handy in an emergency because any deposits you make can be withdrawn without a penalty.
Take time to review your financial plan. Are you prepared to handle any bad news that comes your way?
2. Get Quality Health Insurance
Health insurance is a vital part of your financial plan, and it's important to review your policy to ensure you're properly covered.
Walter White lived in a pre-Obamacare world. That means his medical expenses may not have been capped. Under the new Affordable Care Act, his expenses would have been capped at $12,700 annually, even if he had the low-cost "Bronze Plan" purchased through one of the new health insurance exchanges. (He also would not have been turned down by insurers for any pre-existing conditions.) (See also: Understanding the ACA’s Health Insurance Exchange)
But even under Obamacare, it's still important to find coverage that won't leave you on the hook for thousands of dollars that you may not have budgeted for. If you get insurance through your employer, review it closely to ensure you're properly covered. If you do purchase coverage through a health insurance exchange, take a look at the Gold or Platinum plans, which have higher premiums but more comprehensive coverage. Being underinsured can still lead to financial hardship.
If you do come down with a medical condition, your employer may offer a health spending account, which allows you to deposit money tax free to help pay medical bills. Keep in mind, too, that unreimbursed medical expenses are often tax-deductible.
3. Talk About Money With Your Spouse
Walter thought he was best off hiding the truth from his wife, Skyler, but he'd have been better off being honest with her from the start.
According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 31% of American adults who combined assets with a spouse or partner say they have tried to conceal the truth about their finances. Nearly 60% of these adults say they hid cash from their partner or spouse. But that same report also pointed out that in most cases, spouses end up finding out the truth, anyway.
Once Skyler knew about Walt's "business," she was — surprisingly — able to help him. But their relationship was irreparably damaged. The lesson here is that hiding financial truths from your spouse can strain a relationship and cause you to make bad choices. A family's finances are always better off when everyone is aware of the full picture.
4. Do Something With Your Money
Since most of Walter's money was obtained illegally, he had trouble investing it through traditional means. That's why he kept most of his cash under the floor, in storage units, and in barrels in the desert.
But for the rest of us, it rarely makes sense to follow the "under the mattress" philosophy of saving. Most bank savings accounts and CDs will pay you interest and are FDIC-insured. There are also plenty of other safe investments, including bonds, that will protect your initial investment and offer a return. Even stocks are generally safe if you invest in index funds and don't need your money for a decade or more. (See also: How to Get Started With Index Funds)
5. Manage Your Risk, and Don't Get Greedy
Walter White's downfall may have come when he continued to cook crystal meth even when he had more money than he'd ever need. He let ego and pride get in the way of sensible thinking, and continued taking big risks when he didn't have to.
It's tempting to always go after the highest return on investments. But investments with the highest returns often have the highest level of risk.
The lesson here is that if you are ahead of the game in achieving your financial goals, consider taking a more conservative investment approach to protect what you have. This is especially true for folks who are approaching the age at which they plan to retire.
6. Don't Buy Flashy Things, Especially for Your Kids
After Walter's drug money started rolling in, he went and bought Walt Jr. an expensive sports car. This was, of course, a terrible idea for someone trying to keep a low profile.
Even if you come into a lot of money legally, there are better things to do than blow it on an expensive material item. (Especially a car, which declines in value the second you drive off the lot.)
Even ultra-rich people should take time to teach their children about good financial habits. If you feel the need to get a car for a teenager, take them to the car lot and have them learn about how cars are marketed and priced. Let them help you negotiate the best price on a small, reliable, and fuel-efficient sedan. Once it's bought, set up a plan for having them pay you back.
And set a good example — parents who spend money irresponsibly have kids who spend money irresponsibly.
7. Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
When Walter needed to launder his drug money, he called Saul. When he needed some bad guys to disappear, he found Mike or some other henchmen. Without some help, there's a good chance Walt and Jesse would have been caught or dead before Season 3.
It never hurts to consult with experts when you are in over your head. If you are confused by how to invest your money, find a good financial advisor. If you have home or auto repairs that you can't handle yourself, hire a guy. It's OK to get help.
Any other financial lessons to be learned from Breaking Bad? Please share them in comments!