Do you enjoy watching classic Christmas-themed movies from the 1930s — such as It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol — during the holidays? That’s a tradition in many families.

I enjoy watching them too, but last year something began to gnaw at me — or I suppose at the financial advisor in me.

After thinking about those two movies analytically, I asked myself this question: Who’s the better financial role model — George Bailey or Ebenezer Scrooge? Whom should you try to emulate?

Let’s put it another way: Should you emulate a guy who’s dead-broke, lives in a dilapidated house, drives a jalopy and is so stressed out that he yells at his kids, trashes his house, has a fistfight in a bar, assaults a police officer, wrecks his car (then leaves the scene) and tries to commit suicide?

Well, that’s George Bailey.

Sure, George puts others’ needs ahead of his own. But from a financial perspective, he’s a total failure. There’s no reason he couldn’t have been a humanitarian and financially successful. It doesn’t have to be either/or. You’re allowed to be both. George could have done a better job at personal finance for himself, his wife and his children — without sacrificing his integrity. For example:

  • He could have invested in his friend’s startup company — a “ground-floor opportunity.” But he refused the offer.
  • He could have owned more life insurance than the meager $500 policy he had bought, so his stay-at-home wife and their children would be better protected.
  • He could have taken the job that Mr. Potter offered him — $20,000 a year for three years. He’d have become one of the nation’s wealthiest people; imagine the good he could have done for the community (not to mention his family) with that money! And as an insider and heir apparent, he could have improved the sales and employment practices of all of Potter’s companies, benefiting everyone.

Instead, with a holier-than-thou attitude … well, let’s just say that he blew the job interview.

Indeed, George took pride in his poverty. And in the end, he nearly killed himself. Where would that have left his wife and kids — and the Bailey Building & Loan and its depositors? The movie ignores all this and makes us feel sorry for George. Humbug.

Which takes us to Scrooge.

Like Wonderful Life, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is told mostly in flashback. But here the flashback focuses on what a jerk Ebenezer was — rude, selfish, manipulative. You grow to hate him; even today — despite his character’s eventual turnaround — the name “Scrooge” is considered an insult.

Most forget that, in the final moments of the film, Scrooge has an epiphany. The narrator tells us in the last 30 seconds that Ebenezer becomes “the best friend the city ever had.” He was its greatest philanthropist and changed countless lives for the better — including saving the life of Tiny Tim.

As you watch these two films this year with your kids, explain to them that it’s important that you be a nice person — and equally important that you don’t have to be a financial failure to do so. In the real world, money doesn’t change people; it expands them: If you’re a nice person to begin with, money will make you even nicer, and if you’re a jerk, you’ll become a bigger jerk.

Who’s the better role model? You decide.