Saving Money

Personal Finance Lessons From Law & Order

photo: NBC

Let’s face it: most people don’t find personal finance terribly exciting. Solving murders and prosecuting criminals, on the other hand, can keep your eyes and mind superglued to the television screen. Want proof? How about Law & Order: one of America’s longest-running television dramas, not to mention its tremendous success as a franchise, with numerous spin-offs, video games, a television film and even a reality series.

On May 24, NBC aired Law & Order’s last episode, wrapping up 20 seasons of arresting drama that’s often inspired by real-life events and has a lot to teach us — including some valuable skills that could help us better manage our personal finances. Personal finance? That’s right. The very skills Law & Order detectives use to successfully solve crimes and prosecute criminals could be used to better manage your money. Here are three such skills:

Creativity

Every Law & Order fan knows the vital role of creativity in apprehending suspected criminals. It takes an active imagination to piece the puzzle together and unravel the true nature of how a kidnapping, murder, or drug deal occurred. You must look beyond the obvious explanations, put yourself in the shoes of the criminal and imagine all of the alternative scenarios that might have gone down. This is why the typical detective’s office contains a dry erase board with different sequences of events sketched on them.

A similar mindset can prove helpful when managing your money. Debt repayment is one example. While many are quick to form lists of reasons why their debts cannot be repaid (insufficient income, too many expenses, “the evil credit card companies”), these reasons can usually be overcome by clever and creative thinking. Some of your seemingly “necessary” expenses can probably be scaled back. Better yet, you might be surprised at what an earnest negotiation with your creditors can produce, in terms of lower rates or flexible repayment terms. Overall, the lesson is to push past the initial objections and excuses you might have about improving your financial prospects and imagine what would be possible with a little creative maneuvering.

Perseverance

Another trait Law & Order detectives possess is perseverance. The emotional cycle of a criminal investigation can be turbulent: the excitement of finding leads, the struggle of following them, the frustration of losing everyone’s support when they don’t pan out. The road to successfully cracking a case often includes numerous false starts and trips back to the drawing board. Naturally, the only way to thrive amidst such discouraging circumstances is through iron-clad perseverance. Someone who is impatient, easily frustrated or excessively emotional will not last long inside the pressure-cooker of a criminal investigation.

Perseverance is critical to financial success, too. Let’s say you have decided to set up an automated financial system in which your salary is deposited in your checking account and parts of it are disbursed to bills, savings, retirement plans and investments at scheduled times. The unquestioned advantages of such a system will only come to fruition if you push through the setup process. Opening up each of these accounts, funding them, scheduling all your bills to fall on the same day and making sure each account “talks” to one another will involve numerous phone calls, e-mails, fax confirmations, follow-ups and status checks before it all seamlessly works. Most people lack the patience to endure all of that, but those who stick it out will benefit for months and even years to come.

Big-Picture Thinking

Every consumer can take a cue from the big-picture thinking exhibited on Law & Order. The real challenge of a detective or investigator is juggling an ever-changing array of times, dates, places, witnesses, motives, stories and alibis at the same time. Beyond merely remembering all these details, the detective must somehow weave them into a coherent and credible explanation of how the crime occurred. Every new lead, scoop or interview with a witness or suspect must be analyzed in terms of its congruence with the overall picture that has emerged. Only then is a skeptical judge or jury likely to be convinced by your explanation.

Building up savings or starting a retirement account may not be as intellectually demanding as solving a crime, big-picture thinking is immensely helpful. Real financial success does not come from following random bits of advice from magazines or newspapers. It comes from having a plan and putting the pieces in place to arrive at your financial “destination.” For instance, if your top financial goal is to own a small business and retire at forty, every major financial decision you make must support or sustain that goal. Savings should have a higher-than-normal priority (since you will likely need down payments for office space, vehicles or machinery), and everything from where you live to whether you rent or own should be made in accordance with whether it’ll be harder or easier to start and run that business. Obviously, a different life plan would call for different financial choices, but the point is to have a plan in the first place.

The Takeaway

The traits that lead to successful prosecutions on Law & Order also lead to financial success. Creativity, perseverance and big-picture thinking can overcome most of the obstacles that lead us astray when it comes to money. Above all, each of these traits involves a categorical rejection of the “excuse” mentality. Like a relentless investigator, you should strive to see your financial situation for exactly what it is and do whatever it takes to make the needed changes.