5 money lessons from ‘The Merry Widow.’

th-1I can find personal finance advice just about anywhere, which is why I’ve posted articles like “6 financial lessons from ‘Godzilla’,” “Zombie consumerism” and “10 personal finance lessons from the Iditarod.”

Thus I was on the lookout at last Wednesday’s Metropolitan Opera’s HD re-broadcast of “The Merry Widow.” This is not an opera about bustiers. In fact, it’s not even an opera, but an operetta – lots of speaking roles but with enough musical numbers to keep an orchestra busy.

It’s pretty fluffy fare: The Paris embassy of the impoverished Grandy Duchy of Pontevedro plans a formal ball and invites the titular widow (played by Renee Fleming), who came into big bucks upon the death of her much-older husband on their wedding night.

Officials are terrified that she’ll marry someone outside their country and take her money with her, which could tip the country into bankruptcy. They scheme to fix her up with the ultra-eligible Count Danilo Danilovitsch. What they don’t know is that the two were once in love but his family forbade the marriage – at that time, Hanna was a country girl without a cent to her name.

Does she still love Danilo? Do you even have to ask? But things aren’t that simple.


After a whole lot of silliness and sub-plotting, there’s a happy ending with a twist. And, to the vigilant, a few money lessons to be learned.


What grownups do

1. Live within your means. The embassy was hemorrhaging money but no one seemed to know how to stanch the bleeding. In fact, they dumped a whole boatload of bucks they didn’t have to throw that big party.

Although “spend less than you earn” is pretty basic advice, too many of us aren’t listening. In fact, some insist on taking the same tack as the embassy “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”

But what happens when you don’t make that money? You’ve still got to pay back what you’ve spent. Which brings us to the next lesson…

2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. As noted, the operetta’s main focus is money: If the widow takes her money and runs, the economy will collapse.

Are you spending without a care while pinning your future on a promotion, a Prince Charming, an inheritance or, heaven forbid, a lottery ticket? Don’t. Take charge of your finances and work to un-learn any bad money habits.

Craft a debt repayment plan for any current obligations (the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help) and create a sustainable budget. That budget should include some sort of retirement savings because not only is Prince (or Princess) Charming not coming, you shouldn’t be waiting. Take responsibility for your own life. That’s what grownups do.


Lucky or prudent?

3. Beware of hangers-on. Do rich people ever know really, truly, absolutely for-sure who their friends are? As opposed to “people who want to hang out in order to get something from me” or “people who want to associate with me only because I’m rich like them and who would drop me like a bad habit if my finances went south.”

Hanna is aware that some people think her giant bank account is her most attractive feature. She jabs wryly at the many suitors who shower her with attention, and longs for the old flame who genuinely enjoyed her company. While she does throw a sumptuous party for the town, she doesn’t shower gifts on any of those pretty-boy suitors.

I suggest you do the same. If friends want to turn you into their own personal ATM, put your foot down gently but firmly. The same goes for ne’er-do-well relatives who think you should help them because you’re “lucky” enough to have money (i.e., you’ve been prudent about finances).

Instead, give a personal finance book even if you don’t know whether they’ll read it. Or help in ways that don’t involve handing over cash, such as paying an overdue utility bill or buying school shoes for your niece.

4. Get smart about your money. Hanna is aware of all the details of her husband’s will and its effect on her finances. The show’s climax hinges on one of them – a case of dollars ex machina, if you will – and it reveals the true nature of most of her ardent beaux-to-be. (It’s a bit sexist by today’s standards, but then this was written in 1905.)

You should also have a handle on your own finances. How else can you make the right choices? If you don’t feel capable, find a fee-only financial planner to walk you through your options.


No money secrets

5. Merge carefully. Hanna is super-wealthy. Some of her suitors aren’t, and others are accustomed to the finer things in life whether or not they can actually afford them. Gold-digging is gold-digging no matter whether the hands on the shovel are masculine or feminine.

So if you’re planning to marry or move in together, make sure you talk finances first. Advice columns are full of letters that run along these lines:

  • “S/he said we’d share costs fairly but I’m still carrying most of the financial burden.”
  • “I had no idea that s/he had so much in consumer and/or student loan debt.”
  • “Even with two of us earning we can’t seem to save, but s/he doesn’t want to talk or even think about the future.”

Some people opt for financial reveals in the early stages of dating. That may sound cold, but wouldn’t you want to know if your new guy/gal was up to his/her hairline in debt but blithely unconcerned about the obligation? Or that your new sweetie is behind on child support, has declared bankruptcy twice or has never even thought about retirement planning?

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