The Smartest Financial Advisor Ever? Marty McFly

Ask anybody to name the greatest movie of all time and you’ll get a bunch of different answers: Star Wars, Casablanca, Dora Saves the Crystal Kingdom (That’s if you ask my 5-year-old cousin). Ask me and I’d say Back to the Future, the 1985 box-office smash starring Michael J. Fox. And it all has to do with money.

If you’ve never seen the movie, here’s a quick summary: A teenager (Marty McFly) time-travels from 1985 to 1955 in a souped-up  DeLorean and accidentally interrupts the point at which his dad meets his mom. Marty must figure out a way to get them to fall in love or else he and his entire family will cease to exist! Along the way, Marty bumps into various people and these brief interactions wind up having major consequences in the future.

What does this have to do with finance? The film features a clever storytelling technique called a “payoff.” A payoff occurs when a seemingly-irrelevant detail is mentioned at the beginning of the movie, then pays off when that detail becomes crucial to the plot. For example, when Marty is in 1985, a frantic older woman hands him a flyer that reads “Save the Clock Tower” and then won’t stop blabbing about how a bolt of lightning hit the tower thirty years ago. Marty thinks she’s nutso, so he shoves the flyer into his washed-out denim jeans. But when he finds himself trapped in 1955 and needs a jolt of electricity to power the time machine, Marty pulls out the flyer and—holy 1.21 gigawatts!—we’ve just seen a huge payoff!

This storytelling technique is so effective because, in real life, we have to wait years, even decades, before we can see how events pay off. However, in Back to the Future we immediately get to see how the past affected the future (Or wait, is it how the future affected the past?!).

Wouldn’t it be great if real life worked this way—especially in terms of financial payoffs?

Believe it or not, it can. Sort of. And they do it by looking backwards, then towards the future.

In terms of money, Back to the Future’s chief lesson is about paying attention to what’s happening around you. Forward-thinking financial experts do just that by analyzing years of consumer behavior and investing patterns. From this information, they build mathematical models that can calculate how our choices today might affect our financial futures five, ten, even fifty years down the line. It’s obviously not 100 percent accurate, but with long term financial planning these models have proven very successful.

So, assuming we’re not experts in the field, how can we get our hands on that kind of financial advice without having to spend big bucks doing it?

Turns out, there are many savvy investors who are getting expert advice online at a relatively affordable price. There are many terrific sites out there, but one called LearnVest has become very popular because it’s fun, easy and simple to use, and it empowers people to become responsible for their own money.

Michael J. Fox travels back in time using a souped up DeLoreanLearnVest does more than just give advice. It educates people on how to build budgets, track spending, and gain control of their finances. They offer numerous free services, tips and suggestions—but you do need to create a profile so that the information you get is tailored toward your specific needs.

They’re even helping people get on track in 2013 by offering a free financial checkup for anyone who signs up. It’s basically like having your own personal adviser looking out for your financial future, and helping you find all the possible payoffs.

No one can totally predict the financial future. And while few of us will be lucky enough to find our own time traveling DeLorean, it is good to know that there are some folks out there smart enough to learn from our collective past in order to plan better for the future.