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12 Things Mob Movies Can Teach You About Money

April 2, 2014
Personal Finance
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Warning: Many of these clips have language that is not safe for work—so put on headphones.

“It’s not personal, it’s business.”The Godfather

Michael Corleone makes his case to off a cop who broke his jaw and the man behind the murder attempt on his father in “The Godfather,” telling his brother, Sonny, and the family consigliore, Tom Hagen, that it’s a logical move to protect business interests.

Money may be emotional, but as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman details in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” our gut, emotional reaction to money often causes irrational action when it comes to cash. So when sitting down to figure out your finances, make it business—not personal.

“Your murderers come with smiles.”Goodfellas

When you have a cash crisis—whether promulgated by the loss of a job, divorce or health issues—the folks you most hope would be on your side (banks, credit rating agencies) are the ones with the knife to your throat. As Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, says in “Goodfellas”: “Your murderers come with smiles—as your friends—and they always seem to come at a time when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”

“Everybody’s gotta watch everybody else.”Casino

Your boss is looking at your cost to the company’s bottom line, your partner is anxious about your savings, credit rating’s agencies are watching your habits even as credit card companies tease you with a cash limit hike. With all those eyes on you, you’ve got to watch your own cash.

“When you get the power, then you get the women.”Scarface

After Al Pacino’s Tony Montana watches his friend grossly bungle a romantic pickup, he lays this advice on him: “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”

Though easy to oversimplify, a raft of studies show how men and women perceive cash differently. Perhaps mirroring Darwinian urges, men are drawn to physically attractive females while women are drawn to wealth, seeing cash as a safety net for home and hearth.

“Fuggetaboutit.”Donnie Brasco

In this memorable scene in “Donnie Brasco,” Johnny Depp’s undercover agent describes to his FBI colleagues the nuance of the phrase “forget about it,” which can be used to disagree, agree, tell someone off, signal great pleasure or, simply, to let it go.

Lesson here: Learn the lexicon. When you’re swimming in financial waters, you have to know your 401(k) from your 529s. Otherwise, “Fuggetaboutit.”

“Brand names mean something.”American Gangster

In “American Gangster,” Denzel Washington’s character, Frank Lucas, reads the riot act to a dealer who is stomping on the quality of his heroin, Blue Magic. “That’s a brand name; Like Pepsi, that’s a brand name. I stand behind it, I guarantee it. They know that even if they don’t know me any more than they know the chairman of General Mills.”

In matters of career or handling cash, quality counts – and your reputation is hit when that quality suffers.

“It’s 30 minutes away—I’ll be there in 10.”Pulp Fiction

When hit men Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega get in a jam, Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolf” sweeps in to save the day with the memorable words: “It’s 30 minutes away—I’ll be there in 10.” Then he arrives nine minutes and 37 seconds later.

In money matters or with your career, follow the Wolf: Under-promise and over-deliver.

“This is the business we’ve chosen.”The Godfather Part II

In “The Godfather Part II,” Hyman Roth talks to Michael Corleone about a friend, Moe Greene, who Corleone ordered to be killed. Roth said: “So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen.”

A lot of professionals, whether at the start of their career or in a midlife crisis, look around and wonder if they made the right choices. Self-made millionaires often make their wealth in a line of work they didn’t immediately enjoy. But over time, they learn to love what they do – they play well the game that got them there.

“A coffee shop?”Pulp Fiction

In the set piece that bookends the great “Pulp Fiction,” a pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde holdup thugs debate expanding their line of work to hit the coffee shop where they are having breakfast.

“What’s wrong with that? Nobody ever robs restaurants,” Tim Roth’s character explains. “Why not? Bars, liquor stores, gas stations; you get your head blown off sticking up one of them. Restaurants, on the other hand, you catch with their pants down. They’re not expecting to get robbed. Not as expectant, anyway.”

So, sure—play the game that got you there, but don’t be afraid to change the game when you sense an opportunity. This little caper nearly goes sidewise for this criminal couple, but the lesson feels sound.

“Keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I need to be.”Heat

Again, Al Pacino, only this time he’s on the other side of crime as a determined cop, Lt. Vincent Hanna, who puts the chase of criminals ahead of family. His nemesis, played by fellow gangster movie stalwart Robert De Niro, faces a similar conundrum in his personal life.

This tension plays out in our professional life—work versus family. On one hand, as Intel’s Andy Grove points out, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” But Sheryl Sandberg suggests we can have it all if we only “Lean In.”

How does Godfather Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, weigh in on the issue? “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Then later, toward the end of the Godfather: “I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family.”

Yet two of his sons are “taken care of” before the Corleone drama is through. Like many careers, the “olive oil business” is tough on families.

“Sometimes you’re flush and sometimes you’re bust.”Blow

Johnny Depp’s dad tells the future drug smuggler: “Sometimes you’re flush and sometimes you’re bust, and when you’re up, it’s never as good as it seems, and when you’re down, you never think you’ll be up again, but life goes on.”

Cash woes require perspective and resiliency. Even bankruptcy disappears from your record in time. As Depp’s movie dad adds: “Money isn’t real. It doesn’t matter. It only seems like it does.”

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”The Godfather

Ah, Vito Corleone’s immortal words, the king of the mob movie quotes. Mastering the art of persuasion is key in all matters related to money. And having the tools to get the best deals doesn’t hurt, either.

What did we miss? What other money lessons can we learn from gangster films? Let us know.

Illustration by Brian Yee