Updated on 08.28.09

You Can’t Take It With You

Trent Hamm

you can'tA while back, a reader suggested that I watch the 1938 Frank Capra movie You Can’t Take It With You, featuring Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart. I recently had a chance to sit down and watch the film and it left my mind flooded with thoughts about money and why we really chase it.

The plot of the movie is very straightforward. A businessman falls in love with his secretary and proposes marriage to her. One of the business deals revolves around buying the final unpurchased house in a twelve block area which would allow that whole area to be developed in a different way. The house is, of course, owned by the secretary’s family. That family doesn’t care a whit about money and instead focuses their energies on friendships and enjoying themselves. When the secretary introduces the businessman’s parents (the Kirbys) to her family (the Sycamores), there’s an inevitable culture clash, and eventually the secretary has to choose between the two – and she chooses the friendships and simple pleasures of her family in the end.

One might expect that a personal finance blogger would admire the Kirbys. After all, they’re the ones who carefully invest their money, focus on their careers, and have accumulated serious wealth. Isn’t that what we want here?

In truth, though, I identified much more with the Sycamores. They were far from rich, but they had enough financial stability in their lives that they simply didn’t have to worry that much about money. They didn’t have all of the material trappings, but they had worry-free relationships with each other, deep friendships, the ability to freely laugh, and a full life.

My own life brings this to bear. If my focus were on making as much money as possible, I’d be handling my professional life in a much different fashion. I’d focus on making every post as palatable as possible for social bookmarking sites, with lots of lists and articles that are intentionally written to shock or stand out instead of presenting ideas I really believe in. I’d spend every spare minute following up on every single media request – I’d probably even hire a PR firm to suck up some more attention.

I’d also be spending every evening honing things. Gone would be the lazy evenings playing Agricola with my wife. Gone would be the afternoons chasing my children around the yard. Gone would be the long weekends back in my hometown where I don’t even bother checking my email or anything else.

I’d be a “success,” but would I be successful? For what I want out of life, not really.

I want financial success not for the success, but for the fact that it secures my life with my family and my hobbies and interests and enables me to do work that I enjoy. I want to achieve some degree of wealth not so I can drive a Bentley, but so I can drive a Toyota and not worry at all about tomorrow and can just enjoy the day today without worrying about bills or work responsibilities or anything else.

The financial success I want isn’t the exorbitant riches of the Kirbys. It’s the simple life of the Sycamores, surrounded by the things that make me happy and secure in the knowledge that they’re safe from the world. Give me a quiet little country house with a big garden, not a mansion and a Rolls Royce.

At the end of my days, I’d rather leave my children and grandchildren with a slate of great memories and a great personal character than leave them with a fist full of money. One is a part of you for the rest of your life and is passed down over and over again to the people you love. The other one helps you remodel your kitchen.

You can’t take it with you, after all.

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  1. Rob says:

    One great message that runs through the film: follow your bliss. IIRC, Mr. Sycamore spends a great deal of time asking new people what they want to do- REALLY want to do- with their lives, and encourages them to go for it. A traveling salesman(insurance? it’s been awhile since I watched) has always been passionate about fireworks, and sure enough with the Sycamores encouragement he starts a brand new career making fireworks.
    Easily the most under-rated Capra movie ever. Glad you’re getting the word out, Trent.

  2. Wren says:

    This works. Good job, Trent. :D

  3. Julie says:

    So true. If one keeps chasing the dollar, and amassing more and more, how much is ever enough? This is no more a peaceful life than one of living paycheck to paycheck. I’d rather have enough money to sleep well at night and fill my days with friendship, family and fun!

  4. Patty says:

    I hope that those individuals that are caught up in the “race” find the courage to find this different path is truly rewarding and full of joy.

  5. Steve says:

    Capra always has a positive life message in his movies. There is a flip side to the story, and it affects me. I follow my bliss, which is mostly a love of learning at the moment. I make enough money to survive but not quite enough to meet my monthly needs. The problem for me is that I spend so much time following my heart that I seldom get around to doing the things that would increase my financial security. Hopefully that will change with time, but at 49, how much time do I really have left?
    Here’s hoping all of you reach a work/life balance.

  6. kristine says:

    Anyone who has read your blog for a whole will know you slant toward the Sycamores. The consistency of how you try to apply your values to your actions…well, that integrity is the most appealing aspect of your site, especially to readers with similar values.

  7. NYC reader says:

    Lily Tomlin said, “The problem with winning the rat race is, at the end, you’re still a rat.”

  8. Anne KD says:

    The freedom to explore gardening, keeping house, cooking and helping family is the reason why I stay home. It’s difficult to find Sycamores. So many people ask intrusive questions about my life and why I’m not working outside the home- and get annoyed that I didn’t make the same choice to work as they did. A doctor’s office last week asked several times whether I stayed home by choice or whether it’s because my husband forces me to. Perhaps more people would be happier with their lives if they focused on living and not chasing dollars to fund an excessive lifestyle.

  9. The theme of examining the “why” before embarking on a career or financial decision is crucial. Why more people don’t do it….I can’t say.

    The one piece that I am trying to balance now is that of being of service – to my family, clients, readers, community and world.

    When I was in my 20’s I lived on a kibbutz in Israel – sort of a communal living farm. It was zero stress for us but it meant no opportunity for our kids. We left for that reason and a few others.

    I look back and I am glad that we left. We have a fuller life. I’ve done a better job of providing for my family and the move has allowed me to be more involved in giving back to my community.

    Had we stayed on the kibbutz, we’d have been to able to live very frugally and we wouldn’t have felt much financial stress but it would have been very costly in terms of life experiences.

    That balance….its’ hard to codify.

  10. Yeah, I woud never have thought you would side with the Kirbys, even though this is a finance blog. This blog is more about how money management helps you seek your own version of hapiness.

  11. I just directed the play version of You Can’t Take It With You at my old high school. I chose it partially because it would be wonderful if some of my high schoolers picked up on these important themes in the play. The Kirbys have money, but they’re not happy.

    Of course, the play is slightly different: all that razz about Mr. Kirby trying to buy the property was added in the movie. The play is a straight culture clash. One of the great things that was added to the movie that I liked was how Tony Kirby (the son) wants to be a scientist, but he has to be a business man because of his father. He really wants to investigate how plants can turn light into energy! That sounded kind of silly back then, but pursuing the idea of solar energy is now a “green collar job.” Interesting shift in the times.

  12. Saagar says:

    Nothing comes for nothing. But how much is enough…

  13. “I want financial success not for the success, but for the fact that it secures my life with my family and my hobbies and interests and enables me to do work that I enjoy. ”

    This is so true. While it is true that we can’t take money with us, how many people are really in a position to “horde” money? So that particular message really only applies to the few, yet it will most likely be misinterpreted by the masses.

    Unfortunately in the society that we live in, it is impossible to completely separate Money and Happiness. Therefore money management is imperative.

  14. Andrea W says:

    I would be very surprised if anyone thought you would side with the Kirby position :) FWIW, I would have *loved* living in the Sycamore house, crazy explosions and all.

    That said, I think Steve raises a valid point. Part of what gave the Sycamores the freedom to explore their passions was not just frugality (all living together and sharing, multitasking in rooms, etc), but a strong financial basis. Mr. Sycamore noted that he had been like Mr. Kirby, focused on money, and then walked away from that. After that, he let things take care of themselves–but he had a strong financial foundation on which to do so. In the film, at least, because the land sale isn’t in the play, Mr. Sycamore *owned his home outright* — the only one on the threatened block to do so. In other words, his past financial focus enabled him to toss it all away once he had what he needs.

    All the books I have seen about living on a minimal amount of $ a year seem to assume a similar scenario, that one already has the big ticket items–they mention washers, stereos, tools, a good quality car that lasts, sometimes a paid-off house … I am assuming that these folks also have a healthy emergency fund for home repair / equipment failure.

    But what about people, like Steve, who follow their bliss but who don’t have (or never had) a strong financial basis to fall back on? Where is the balance between following bliss all one’s life, having enough, and having too much? Should you work at a high-paying job in your 20s and retire in your thirties, even if you loathe the high-paying job? Should you work, then do, then work again? What if what you love never does bring in enough to fill needs — do you reconsider? Depend on the kindness of family?

    Any answer, I suspect, is highly personal; what is enough to me might be too little (or too much!)or too scary to someone else, and vice versa.

  15. Shannon says:

    Great post, Trent. as illustrated in the Fulfillment Curve in “Your Money or Your Life”, having the necessities and comforts with a few luxuries is just enough to get us to maximum enjoyment of life.

  16. I agree 100%–I am looking for financial well-being, not millions and milliuons of dollars. Of course, if that happens, great, but it would not be by design.

    I only want enugh so that money does not need to be a “worry” for me or for my family, ever.

  17. Jen says:

    @Anne KD: medical professionals are legally obligated to report evidence of domestic violence, and a common tactic of abusers is to make a target financially dependent. Their inquiries may have been part of a standard procedure and not necessarily just a criticism of your decision. :-)

  18. “The one who dies with the most money is still dead.” I can’t remember who said that, but it illustrates well the ultimate futility of chasing money for it’s own sake.

    It seems that the Sycamores have what everyone wants–the love and acceptance of everyone around them–and what we sometimes (unconciously) believe we can only attain with money and success. Much of this is media driven, which is why it’s so hard to resist.

    We have to get back to the question of “who do I want to be”, as opposed to “what do I want to have”. The difference between the two is crucial, but it takes some discernment to recognize it.

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