Financial lessons from Les Misérables

I drove home two weekends ago and, as often happens when I’m there, my mother and I had a culture weekend.

I love musicals and I love ballets (and I did plenty of both in years gone by[*]), but, as odd as it sounds to say this, honestly I could afford to see so many more shows back when student tickets were an option. It’s just a fact of life that buying tickets to the Kennedy Center doesn’t fit in my budget at the moment. But since my mother and I both love them, she’ll usually buy a ballet or musical (or sometimes both) ticket to bribe me to come home as inducement for some mother-daughter bonding time.

This time, as an early birthday present to me, we saw the Carolina Ballet perform Romeo and Juliet and then saw Les Misérables that evening.

I’ve seen both shows before (Les Mis is one of those that gets me every time), so I could better appreciate that essentially the theme of the day was “love at first sight” followed by “everyone dies.” It was dramatic, to say the least.

Obviously the ballet had no words, so even if I could pull some brilliant personal finance-related things out of a tale of two very young star-crossed lovers, they would be hard to narrate, given that ballet is a visual art. (Yes, of course I’ve read and seen the play. I’m still not dissecting Romeo and Juliet.)

Communicate with your partner might be one—and one that has financial implications for those of you who are partnered up. Honestly there would be no need for the entire story if they could just text each other:

“hey so imma appear dead when u see me but don’t worry it’s only fake so I can get out of marrying that totally lame other dude my parents want to hook me up with UGH lol”
“ok cool lol then i def won’t bring the poison that’ll come in handy when i think ur for REAL dead hahaha love u see u in the crypt!”

BUT ANYWAY. It’s hard to write a post about a ballet, but a musical? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.[**] Especially because almost two weeks later and I’ve still got Les Mis songs in my head on constant repeat.

It all started with that fateful song, “I Dreamed a Dream.”

The importance of having a backup plan

I’ve heard “I Dreamed a Dream” approximately one thousand times. After all, for the eleven years from middle school through the end of college, I was a chorus nerd. (I’m still a chorus nerd who spends one of her weeknights at rehearsal, but it’s not as much of A Thing once you leave college.) If there was any type of audition for a solo where you could choose the song you auditioned with, someone was going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream.” It was just a given.

But I guess I never paid too close attention to the lyrics. This time, while listening to it, I couldn’t help but think “damn, girl. Your life is one giant shit sandwich and you’ve got zero options.” To be fair, also this particular actress was amazing and the chills I had while listening to her sing added to the impact of the song. But in the middle of it my mind immediately jumped to thinking about emergency funds and having options and a measure of safety in life. Is that a sign I’m way too deep into this personal finance thing? Maybe.

But I’m rolling with it: you need yet another example of the power of emergency funds?

Fantine sings “I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I’m living.” If she had even the slightest measure of extra funds, she might’ve been able to hold out for a bit after she got thrown out of her factory job for the irredeemable sin of hiding the fact she had a child out of wedlock, that whore! (oh and also for not sleeping with the foreman ?). I doubt jobs were easy to come by in that town so she might’ve been able to move to find another one. She possibly could’ve escaped the hell that was her life and found a better situation.

It might not have been great; after all the title of the musical is literally “The Wretched” or “The Miserable Ones.” But it might not have been hell. And she might’ve been able to weather some of her storms a bit better.

Also, remember how important birth control is for women’s financial security? Uh yeah. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant (and abandoned by her jerk boyfriend), Fantine probably wouldn’t have been forced to sell her body to pay Cosette’s “caretakers” and might not have ended up dying shortly thereafter of consumption.

Your emergency fund is your friend, is what I’m saying.

This one doesn’t have an emergency fund and also has dreamed a dream where his life would look so different: constant love and attention, unlimited treats, all the dog and people food he could eat. You know, the basics

A little kindness goes a long way

At the beginning of the musical, 24601 Jean Valjean comes to the end of his manual labor sentence and is given his parole papers so he can rejoin the world. Things don’t go great for him: turns out that even back then having a criminal record affected your job prospects. One night a bishop invites him in and gives him food, wine, and a place to sleep for the night. As thanks, during the night Valjean steals a silver plate and runs away, but gets caught shortly thereafter.

Instead of telling the truth—that Valjean stole the plate from him—and sending him back to jail, the bishop instead says that the plate was a gift, and that Valjean forgot the best part of the gift. And then he hands Valjean his two silver candlesticks (and sings as an aside that he’s saved Valjean’s soul).

Valjean, reformed, sets out for the rest of his life as a better man.

Contrast the bishop’s behavior with that of the Thénardiers, who sing an entire song, “Master of the House,” about the sleazy ways they rip off people at their inn. It’s a hilarious song performed on stage, mind you, but for them, “kindness” looks like this: “Glad to do a friend a favor / Doesn’t cost me to be nice / But nothing gets you nothing / Everything has got a little price!” Oh yeah, they’re lovely people.

I’m not saying you need to hand your silver candlesticks (who even has those?) to the next stranger you meet, but “don’t be a dick” is a good way to go. For those of us who have plenty (or enough), it’s good to recognize our good fortune and that not everyone is similarly well-off. And if we can help those people when we can, even better. After all, as the beggars of Paris implore, “Look down and show some mercy if you can / Look down, look down upon your fellow man!”

Kindness and empathy made the world a better place.

Bend so you don’t break

Ah, Javert. He spends the entire three-hour performance doggedly pursuing Jean Valjean (does he have a special spidey-sense about where to go that means the two of them conveniently end up in the same place multiple times?) because HE MUST UPHOLD THE LAW and 24601 Jean Valjean broke his parole. He’s got an entire song where he swears by the stars that he “never shall yield” until it happens:

“Lord, let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest
Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!”

That is one obsessed dedicated dude. Personally I think Javert probably has bigger fish to fry, but whatever, this isn’t my musical. Things progress, Valjean evades Javert a few times, and then at the barricade Valjean has a chance to kill Javert but lets him go instead.

Javert loses his fucking mind because he can’t stand to live owing his life to Valjean; remember there is THE LAW but he can’t very well chase Valjean down and arrest him now that he owes him his life. But THE LAW. So he jumps into the Seine.

Shit gets literally dark when you swear by the stars but then fail, as the Les Mis movie would like you to know

It didn’t have to be that way. “There is nothing on earth that we share / It is either Valjean or Javert!” was not actually dictated anywhere but in Javert’s own unyielding mind. This isn’t some Harry Potter “neither can live while the other survives” situation but the dude couldn’t adapt to life as he knew it changing.

The financial (and life) lesson here? Be flexible. If things go wrong (see above about emergency funds), have a plan. For example, if you’re keeping the bulk of your savings in the stock market so you can do better than the paltry interest rates banks offer and actually outpace inflation on that chunk of money, you’d best be prepared for what happens if you need that money in a downturn.[***]

If things go right (a bonus, a raise, a new opportunity), have a plan, too!

Oh and also, pursuing something with such dogged determination (FI maybe?) that it comes at the expense of everything else is probably going to end up in heartbreak.

A few more parting lines

It’s a three-hour production so I’m going to stop there with the financial lessons. But remember: “At the end of the day you’re another day older” so now’s the time to figure out your financial shit so you don’t end up like Fantine with no options. And if “Somewhere beyond the barricade / [There is] a world you long to see,” it’s time to start planning for it now.

Okay, I’m done with the Les Mis lyrics, now that I’ve got them embedded in everyone’s head. But I’m going home again in May and mom and I are seeing Waitress. So you only have three months to wait to find out if I spend my time during yet another musical thinking about its personal finance implications!

[*]I was in musicals in both elementary and high school but honestly might’ve peaked in elementary school since in high school there wasn’t much point in me auditioning for any lead role. I and everyone else knew I was going to be cast in the “lead dancer” role by default (no, I’m not bitter) since I was pretty much the only person who both sung and danced. Luckily my ballet career peaked in high school so it wasn’t all downhill for me after fifth grade!

[**]For the record, yes, I’ve read the book (the abridged version, which was already quite long enough, thank you very much). I gotta say I much prefer the musical theater version!

[***]It’s not that I’m mad about what the stock market’s correction is doing to my net worth per se, but it is that I’m mad about what the stock market’s doing to my net worth. I’m paying off my outstanding credit card debt this month and wanted to celebrate what that would do for me, dammit! I sent $1.6k to one of my credit cards last week but still managed to have my net worth drop $2k that day. I am mad about this timing: why couldn’t this have happened three weeks later after I celebrated my new net worth high???

13 Replies to “Financial lessons from Les Misérables”

  1. Oooooo, Les Mis – full of life and money lessons – and the best musical soundtrack ever! And, as a landlord myself, I love the Thenardier’s Master of the House:
    Everybody loves a landlord
    Everybody’s bosom friend
    I do whatever pleases
    Jesus! Won’t I bleed ’em in the end!

    I hum it when I’m raising rents…just kidding 🙂

  2. Ah I love theatre, and living in London am lucky to go often. It’s not as expensive as people think, and such a culturally enriching process.

    Les Mis itself is such a classic on so many levels. The music is so catchy and memorable, and the story is epic. Who doesn’t love a bit of revolution?

  3. Soo I’ve never been to the theatre before and haven’t seen Les Mis yet.. you need a spoiler alert at the top!! ?

    From someone who knows nothing about the musical it’s interesting to know how many money lessons are in there!

  4. This was wonderfully brilliant 🙂 I was in our high school’s production of Les Mis my senior year, maybe I should have paid better attention to those financial lessons and I’d be several years ahead of my retirement savings right now. C’est la vie.

    And though ballet is not my jam, I would totes go see something at DPAC w you next time you’re home. I love me some musicals.

    $1600 paid off is nothing to sneeze at lady! CONGRATS! Who cares what the market did to net worth, your debt is getting Crushed and that is awesome.

    1. It took until I was a PF blogger seeing Les Mis for the third or fourth time to pay attention to these lessons, so I wouldn’t blame high school you too much! I was in Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady in high school so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t pay much attention to those financial lessons 😉

      Heh I want the net worth satisfaction (damn you, markets!) but you’re right, the payoff is the most important thing!

  5. “Bend so you won’t break” is such great advice. I love the way you have taken lessons from these works of art and found the comparisons to lessons in personal finance. Plus it makes me want to go see “Les Mis” again.

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