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Documentary Review | Money, Explained

Rating: 4 out of 4.

I went into Netflix’s Money, Explained thinking that it would be a technical, jargon-laden series. But it surprised me.

I barely binge-watch web series, let alone a docuseries, but this one had me hooked. I finished all six episodes in one go and came out with deep satisfaction of time well-utilized.

Adorned with ’80s video-game graphics and groovy voice-overs, Money, Explained is one of the best non-filmy shows available on Netflix. It does not matter whether you have the financial chops, this series deploys the power of storytelling to reel you in.

At the same time, don’t expect any deep analyses. This is not a show about high finance.

The purpose of Money, Explained is clearly to both educate and entertain. And, it achieves those objectives with deft execution.

The five episodes of the series encapsulate five money-management problems. Below I will shed some quick light on what each episode covers in the docuseries:

Episode 1 – Get Rich Quick

The episode opens with a montage depicting how financial conmen have duped gullible humans since time immemorial.

In the next 25 minutes, the viewer gets a peek into the modus operandi of various conmen.

One common thread that binds most financial fraudsters is that nine out of ten times, they sell what doesn’t exist. From Gregor MacGregor touting a fictitious country to Charles Ponzi enamoring investors with get-rich-quick schemes, these crooks lured people with charisma and glib-talking.

With the advent of Internet, the slick swindlers emerged from non-finance circles as well. The internet business coaching is a prime example. A self-proclaimed guru promising to impart his secret techniques in exchange of money became a rage, it still is.

Money Explained

Cryptocurrency and people’s fixation with it has opened the doors for more sophisticated cons. The documentary depicts two prime examples.

Carlos Matos of now-defunct cryptocurrency Bitconnect told investors he would use their funds to trade in and profit from the volatility of Bitcoin.

Dr. Ruja Ignatova aka the Cryptoqueen peddled her cryptocurrency OneCoin with the age-old double-your-money-quick spiel. She vamoosed with $4 billion of investors’ money in 2018 and hasn’t been seen since.

Episode 2 – Credit Cards

The second episode addresses the question: Have the credit cards really liberated us? And, how can you avoid getting screwed?

Credit card industry, since its inception in 1958, has evolved into a trillion dollar business today. However, not all is hunky-dory, especially, at consumers’ end with 4 in 10 Americans carrying a credit card debt.

The documentary explains the nitty-gritty of owning a credit card and dealing with what comes with it in case you don’t handle it well.

The documentary underlines that most problems occur when people start using their credit cards as emergency savings accounts.

When the statement arrives, they get anchored to the minimum monthly payment option. This is where card companies stop being your friend and turn into predators. For them, such customers are easy prey whose souls they get to suck every month.

The best way to avoid getting into trouble is to repay your monthly debt on time. Don’t fall into the minimum-monthly payment trap since any outstanding dues also attract interest.

To cut it short, the more you delay paying it off in full, the more bloated your statement gets. And, it all happens in a sneaky fashion.

The documentary emphasizes the following to steer safe:

  • don’t let the credit card company pick you.
  • find the card that best meets your needs with the lowest interest rate.
  • know when your monthly payment is due and always pay off your balance in full every month.

Episode 3- Student Loans

A debt of any kind is a bane especially when you are unable to repay it. Student loans in the US ($1.7 trillion) far outweigh credit card debt and auto loan debt.

The documentary answers the questions as to how we reached this stage and if there is a recourse to this problem.

Student Loans - Money Explained

The demand for heavy tuition fees feeds the loan supply. Federal grants have also squeezed over the years, thus making the reliance on loans higher.

As with credit cards, compounding plays its role here, too. When you pause or defer your student loan for some time, you take the first stride into the interest quagmire. Because now your bank will extract interest on unpaid interest from you.

Your payment obligations pause, your monthly interest obligations don’t.

Episode 4 – Gambling

Gambling is one of the biggest industries in the world with a market size estimated to be $67 billion. By 2023, it’s expected to jump to $93 billion.

Even Social Casinos – the online games where you trade real money for virtual (fake) purses are a $5.3 billion industry.

But why the heck do we like to gamble?

Money, Explained puts it down to our anticipation of beating the odds and the opportunity of making easy money. Illusion of chance, as psychologists call it.

People who visit a casino once in a while often come back with stories of triumph, and how they beat the odds. But those who hang out there every weekend, ultimately lose money. See, casinos always play the long game.

Prof Leonard Mlodinow in his book The Drunkard’s Walk reveals that casinos take special precautions to protect themselves from skilled players. They rig roulette wheels and slot machines enough to earn profits and ensure survival.

Most people should stop when they win early, but they don’t and slot game designers know it. Designed to fool you into thinking that your next payoff can be bigger, these machines lead you down the rabbit hole.

Psychologists call this feeling ‘the zone‘ where you are not worried about winning, you just want to keep going. It’s the spurt of dopamine in the brain with every spin that keeps us going.

Episode 5 – Retirement

The last episode of Money, Explained sheds light on one of the most important financial decisions you make in your life. Saving enough for retirement.

Because retirement is expensive, it’s important to start saving early. But, as the research data in the documentary indicates, not many buy this proposition. It mentions that a quarter of the US workforce doesn’t have any retirement savings.

Money Explained

This particular piece of docuseries has a more serious tone and gravitas to it. The expert bytes are longer as they delve into a possible solution. The social security and the 401K system are discussed in detail.

Some experts propose – work longer. It makes the economy wealthy and makes people pad up their retirement savings. Others disagree and favor instituting a mandatory savings program for all workers.

All this while, the voice-over reminds the viewer again and again that there is a crisis out there in the US, waiting to happen.

Verdict

The only bad thing about the show is its title.

Money, Explained sounds like a documentary about the evolution of finance. You know, just like that book of Niall Ferguson. Other than that, it’s a great show, it ticks off all the right boxes. The episodes are short, editing is superb, voice-overs are groovy, visuals are fantastic and content is crisp and punchy.

Even if you are well-versed with various aspects of money management, you’d glean several alerts and reminders from this docuseries.

Experts featured in the docuseries:

  • Stephen Greenspan, author of Annals of Gullibility. He forgot to read his own book as he entrusted his money with Madoff, proving anybody can become a victim of a scam.
  • Maria Konnikova, author of The confidence game
  • Edward Balleisen, author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff
  • Natasha Schull, author of Addiction by Design
  • AI Jen-Poo, author of The age of dignity
  • Teresa Ghilarducci, author of Rescuing Retirement

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