What this year's Oscar-nominated films can teach you about money

Your personal finance Oscar party viewing guide

Academy Award nominations are out! And while this year’s nominated films range in subject, many share a common thread: the big role economics and personal finance play in our lives.

For your consideration…



Nominations: 11, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay

Todd Phillips’s supervillain origin story puts Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix in clown makeup, while audiences watch a career change that will transform Gotham City forever. Yet amidst all the grit and chaos, the real villain of this story might just be unaffordable health care. Not far into the film, future Joker Arthur Fleck is told by his clinical social worker that she can’t see him as a patient any longer because of budget cuts—leaving him without access to counseling or medication. While mental illness, treated or untreated, does not indicate criminality, you can’t help wondering whether Batman would have an easier job if this guy had gotten the help he needed.

Personal finance takeaways: Per the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 2018 was the first year in a decade when the number of uninsured Americas—now 8.5% of the U.S. population—rose. Stay insured to prevent the financial nightmare of paying in full for your health care costs—and if a job loss puts your coverage in jeopardy, contact your doctor to work out an arrangement and explore ways to save on health care. Large medical bills are a top cause of bankruptcy. Without insurance, you’re just one illness or accident away from a major money disaster—in addition to the stress caused by your actual health crisis. If you have access to an employer-sponsored flexible spending account (FSA), use it to plan ahead for out-of-pocket expenses like mental health care, which can add up quickly.

Little Women

Little Women

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score

This Greta Gerwig–helmed adaptation depicts the economic constraints put on women in the 1860s while illuminating the challenges they still face in the 2020s. We follow the March sisters as they emerge from a financially anxious childhood to face choices that will define their adult lives. Meg (Emma Watson) marries close to home, where she and her husband continue to struggle with money, while Amy (Best Supporting Actress nominee Francis Pugh) sees marriage as an “economic proposition” and looks for a wealthy suitor. Meanwhile, fan-favorite Jo (Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan) supports her destitute family with her writing. This adaptation centers on Jo as she comes into her career—and learns to negotiate. The movie ends, not with a kiss in the rain like the Winona Ryder version of 1994, but rather with Jo bargaining for 6.6% of her book’s royalties and full copyright retention, setting an example for young women everywhere.

Personal finance takeaways: Research shows women are less likely to negotiate at work—and ask for less money when they do. But at a time when women still earn 82 cents on the dollar compared to men, and need to save twice as much during their working years to match men’s retirement earnings, negotiation couldn’t be a more necessary risk.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story Oscars

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score

Director Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story goes into excruciating detail about the financial toll divorce can take, largely through the eyes of Charlie (Best Actor nominee Adam Driver), who finds himself in a bicoastal custody battle when his wife, Nicole (Best Actress nominee Scarlett Johansson) takes their young son with her from New York to California. Financial anxiety mounts as the legal fees and cross-country flights pile up. (Memorably, Charlie asks his divorce attorney how much he’s charging to tell a long-winded joke.) My major money-related quibble with the film is that Nicole gets the better deal out of divorce; in reality, women, on average, see a 20% decline in income after their marriages end.

Personal finance takeaways: Women face hidden costs throughout their financial lives, including the pink tax on consumer products. The impact of childcare on women’s earning potential—aka, the “mommy penalty”—is another big part of the picture. That all figures heavily into the high-stakes money drama of divorce, which again—in many ways—is often more financially burdensome on women than on men.

The Two Popes 

Two Popes Oscars
Nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

This feature from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles charmed audiences this year with what may be the ultimate take on landing a promotion. Over the course of several days in and around the Vatican, the future Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Best Actor nominee Jonathan Pryce), inadvertently engages in an extended job interview with Pope Benedict XVI (Best Supporting Actor nominee Anthony Hopkins).

Personal finance takeaways: As my mom told me when I was trying to figure out my work situation straight out of college: Let the job find you. Sure, do the legwork, but be open because career opportunities (including the ones that come from networking with old colleagues) can crop up when you least expect them. Moreover, older people are extremely valuable workers, in spite of workplace ageism—which 61% of older workers have reported either observing or facing directly.

Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.

Academy Awards career divorce equal pay films health insurance joker kids and money little women marriage story movies Oscars the two popes women

Join the conversation