Published July 13, 2012
Spoiler alert: If you haven't watched "Breaking Bad" up to the season four finale and plan to, you might want to save this article for later.
The Emmy-winning hit drama "Breaking Bad," which launches the first half of its fifth and final season July 15 on AMC, is all about radical transformations. And not the kind that are good -- or legal.
Lead character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) transforms from a rumpled New Mexico high school teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer into a millionaire maker of crystal meth. He does it to provide financial support for his wife, their teenage son with cerebral palsy and their baby daughter.
Walt and other family members make terrible, shocking choices, from Walt killing business accomplices to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), deciding to help launder his illegal money. Walt's quest to provide for his family after he's succumbed to his illness turns into a mission filled with danger and death. He's the Everyman gone haywire.
Read on for seven bad financial choices made by Walt and other characters on "Breaking Bad," plus advice from experts on wiser decisions for those who aren't living life on the edge.
In season one, Walt is introduced as a bored chemistry teacher who moonlights at a car wash. His wife is pregnant. He works at the school his son, Walter Jr., attends.
When Walt collapses at the car wash, he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given maybe only a few years to live.
So he keeps the diagnosis a secret, quits the car wash, falls in line with ex-student-turned-meth-maker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and produces high-grade methamphetamine to make more money.
It would have been better for Walt's family if he'd just bought weekly lottery tickets, says Lewis Perkins, a financial adviser at California-based Comprehensive Financial Solutions Inc.
But seriously, a variable annuity is a good way to provide for loved ones, Perkins says.
In a variable annuity, you give money to an insurance company, and it agrees to make periodic payments to you immediately or at a future date. Put just $10,000 into a variable annuity that invests the money, and you could get a decent return, Perkins says. If the annuity offers a death benefit and you die before the insurer has made payments to you, your beneficiary will receive a specified amount.
Walt's nervous sister-in-law, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), makes her own bad financial choices in season one.
In an attempt to impress Skyler, Marie steals a diamond-studded baby tiara from a jewelry store to give as a baby shower gift. Unfortunately for Marie, Skyler discovers the theft and confronts her.
When facing the same urges as Marie, what should a person do instead?
"You take an unnecessary risk on a psychological impulse. I recommend therapy or a young lover, not stealing," cracks Perkins.
There's also been a return in the last several years to layaway programs to aid cash-strapped consumers, so they don't max out their credit cards (or swipe items). The practice of laying away merchandise at stores and paying for it over time was born during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Wal-Mart discontinued its layaway program in 2006 but brought it back for holiday gift-giving last year. Unlike credit cards, layaway programs don't charge interest, but they usually require a down payment. Customers can't leave the store with the items until they've paid in full.
"It all goes back to responsibility, respect and having patience," says Perkins.
In season three, Walt finally admits to Skyler that he's a meth manufacturer. That's after she threatens divorce and presses him to find out how he's paying his medical bills.
Later on, after Walt's shifty attorney, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), suggests a way to launder the drug money, Skyler pushes to buy the car wash where Walt used to work. Good idea? Of course not.
Former federal prosecutor Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who writes an online column about white-collar crime for The New York Times, says if you come into a large amount of money -- legally, of course -- the smartest thing to do is invest it for the long term.
But first, ignore it for six months for perspective.
"It's like if you win the lottery, you have to get comfortable with the idea of being wealthy," says Henning.
Find someone trustworthy who won't suck up to you or allow you to make bad financial choices. Get your money somewhere safe, such as a large brokerage firm, and come up with a diversified portfolio, Henning says.
"Don't do anything quickly. You don't need to take it to Vegas and double it," he says.
The Whites find themselves with loads of cash hoarded from Walt's successful meth operation. So, in season four of "Breaking Bad," Skyler turns to storing millions of bills in heavy, vacuum-sealed plastic bags in a crawl space underneath the family's modest house.
It's a new spin on the cash-under-the-mattress tradition. Some people who come by their money legitimately prefer to keep it around the house, but that's never a good idea.
"The risk is that if you put money in a crawl space, the house can burn down," says Henning. There's no insurance for cash kept in the house, he notes, but money in the bank is insured up to a quarter of a million dollars.
Some liquidity is important for opportunities and emergencies that may come along, says Perkins. Beyond that, real estate, stocks, short-term bonds and precious metals offer a range of investment options that will provide better returns for accumulated savings than hiding places around your home.
You might also treat yourself. "A vacation or cultural experience stays in the way of memories and is a more long-lasting expenditure," notes Carrie Lane, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.
Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) is completely gleeful in season four when Walt brazenly buys him the souped-up, tomato-red Dodge Challenger the teen wants for his 16th birthday instead of going to a used-car dealership.
But the flashy car, bought with drug money, is another of Walt's bad financial choices. It sticks out in his sedate middle-class neighborhood like a splash of red paint on the sidewalk saying "INVESTIGATE ME!" Skyler begs Walt to return the expensive muscle car to the dealership. Walt races it around an empty parking lot, skidding all over the place, and eventually blows it up and calls for a taxi.
What should a parent do instead?
"Teach values. That's part of getting yourself used to being wealthy. You can buy a nice car, but not a tricked-out car," says Henning. "Parents should do that regardless: teach values. You have an opportunity to teach and to take care of your kids."
A new Dodge Challenger can cost up to $45,000, according to automotive website Edmunds.com. Consider a cheaper alternative for a road-ready teen.
"Buy an efficient hybrid," Perkins advises.??
Deadly calm Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) has a good cover as the owner of a fried chicken fast-food joint. He's a drug kingpin, bankrolling Walt and Jesse at an industrial superlab to churn out their high-end meth in seasons three and four. He's at odds with the drug cartel in Mexico, and he brutally kills an associate in front of Walt and Jesse.
Not the best business partner. How do you pick a better one?
"One of the best pieces of advice I received in grad school is, 'Who would you want to see at the mailbox every morning?'" says Lane, the author of "A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment."
"Bryan Cranston's character doesn't respect Gus," Lane adds. "You have to respect the other person (and make sure) they bring something to the table as valuable as what you bring."
George Abe, faculty director of strategic research at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, suggests having a frank talk with a would-be partner about objectives before drafting a contract.
"With these talks, you (have to) have knowledge, experience or luck to ask the right questions," says Abe, a former Cisco Systems executive.
Season four literally ends with a bang as Walt dramatically finishes his business partnership with Gus by blowing him up. A bomb made by Walt is strapped to the wheelchair of a mutual Gus-hater and detonates, disfiguring Gus, who dies almost immediately.
When Skyler later asks what happened, Walt answers simply, "I won."
Instead of bombing, shooting, strangling or poisoning associates, as Walt did throughout the first four seasons of "Breaking Bad," how should a person end an acrimonious financial relationship?
"You should have a frank discussion about the facts," says Abe. "The two parties, without lawyers, coming to a business decision: 'I will buy you out, or you will buy me out, and I will transfer these assets.' And then you bring in a lawyer."
That keeps either party from initially looking for a way out through contract loopholes.
"You need to say, 'You didn't fulfill your expectations for X, Y, Z,'" Abe adds. "More people are pretty stupid about not getting the sequence. You shouldn't start with emotions first. You should start with facts first."
Outside the world of "Breaking Bad" and its bad financial choices, it goes without saying: "Blowing up your partner should not be an option," says Henning.
Copyright 2012, Bankrate Inc.