Ben Stein From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Is The Economics Teacher We Always Wanted

There’s always that one teacher you remember from high school. Maybe it was the science teacher who schooled their students on stoichiometry, or the Phys Ed teacher who encouraged complete creativity in their interpretive dance class. But while some students may not eagerly mention economics as being their favorite subject, you just might have if you had been in Mr. Ben Stein’s class. That’s right, everyone’s favorite economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made topics like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act interesting — and voodoo economics, too. We spoke with the prolific Ben Stein about his illustrious career, his tips for families on how to make the most of their money — and anyone? Anyone? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Ben, most people might think that you’re only an economist, but you’ve had many other careers, too.

Yes, I’m a lawyer, statistician, actor, screenwriter, novelist — I’ve written a tremendous amount about financial fraud. I’m a madman, just working all the time. It’s just what’s in me.

Is there one field that is of more interest to you?

I love acting and speaking. I was a teacher at a school in Washington D.C. called American University. I can’t tell you how much I loved doing that. If I could do that for the rest of my life, I would. Wonderful people at the administration at the university and wonderful students. I taught one of the most popular classes they’ve ever had at the University. I taught three semesters; I first started out with 60 students, then it went to 260, and then 360. It was the largest class they had ever had. I was in heaven; I would walk into the room and the kids would love me so much. I think the happiest time of my life was when I walked into class for the third semester and the kids got up, cheered, stomped on the ground, and whistled.

And then there’s the time you worked as a speech writer for President Nixon.

I couldn’t take the humidity in Washington, so I took a job at UC Santa Cruz, and I taught there for an academic year, but I missed D.C. And then by incredible luck, I got a job working as a speech writer for President Nixon. I love writing speeches, I love speaking, and I love acting, I love everything where I’m the center of attention!

I would think that teaching encompasses many of the things you love. There’s a performance to it as well as the educational aspect of it.

There’s a big performance factor and I love making people laugh. I’m a born comedian; my show, Win Ben Stein’s Money, won seven Emmy’s. At the same time, I was a trial lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission; it was a very responsible job but nowhere near the fun of teaching at American U.

As an educator, what would you say is lacking in terms of teaching kids about personal finance and economics?

Very good question. It’s an amazing vacuum in today’s academic life that they’re not taught a darn thing. When I teach students, it’s not in the curriculum, and the school isn’t telling me to do it. I just do it by myself because I figure it is so important for them to know. I was lucky because I had a father who was one of the most famous economists in the history of America. My mother was also an economist which was very rare at the time to have a Ph.D. in economics, but she did. We grew up talking about economics in our house all the time. I was always very interested in how investments work, how public companies work, and what were the best strategies for investing.

I have to say, I made some tremendous mistakes in the beginning. Had I done things better, I would be a terribly rich man. I really wish I had known more. I learned what I know largely by studying the life and works of Warren Buffet. He’s considered America’s greatest investor. He’s a genius and contrary to people’s opinion, he didn’t start out poor or walking on the eggshells of poverty. He started out as a farmer’s son in a rural part of Connecticut. Following what he did was immensely useful. If I had to do it over again, I would have started investing early. As a Jewish boy, at 13, I had a bar mitzvah. I got money; not large gifts but if I had put that in Warren Buffet’s companies when I was young, well, I’m already a millionaire many times over, but I’d be a millionaire many many many times over!

But I think it’s really important for kids to learn about money. Oh my God, I just wish I had started earlier. Having a modicum of security about money is so incredibly important.

It’s beneficial for your mental health.

Oh my God, you’re not kidding! When I’m worried about money, I’m an effin nightmare! It’s like I have the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) running around my head trying to catch me and kill me. Security about money — it’s unimaginable how important it is.

Kids might hear their parents saying that they’re going to pay this bill or that bill, but sometimes they’re not taught the proper steps towards investing. 

You bet. Are you ever right, sweetheart. I try to tell my son, who’s 36, and my granddaughter, who’s 11, about the value of money and investing. I wish I could teach all American children what to do about money. Get an education and a skill that’s a well-paid skill. Save and put the money in a safe, but not too safe, environment that will make money on your money and it will compound, year by year, month by month, and even day by day to your wealth. It will make such a difference in your life.

As you wake up in the morning and look over at the clock, think to yourself: “Is there anything I can do to improve my economic situation?” Mr. Buffet says, “Don’t think about what you earn and spend and then think you’ll have something to save. The first priority should be saving, not spending.” And boy, that has done well for him. I will say that I love him a lot, and I would say this to him if we were sitting at the same table, which we have often been, that he’s not ever said to me: “Okay, Benji, here’s a secret. Now go forth and be a billionaire.”

The one piece of advice I’ve heard that can apply to anyone is: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you save.”

Absolutely. It’s what you save, and where and how you save it. Putting it under your bed isn’t the greatest idea, but you must have it in something safe, and something you can take out in case there’s an emergency like a very serious family illness. You must be able to get at it and put it to work protecting your family and their peace of mind.

For today’s families, what would be the one piece of advice you would give them to have financial stability and peace of mind?

Save as much as you possibly can. I would sit down with a financial planning professional and make calculations. Calculate how much you earn, how much you pay in taxes, and how much you’d have left to save if you behaved with a reasonable amount of prudence. Save in a diversified form that will give you a decent return on your money. Put the money in an index fund and keep it there and it will compound and compound. Keep it there until you lack the strength to continue working; let it continue after you stop working.

An index fund that is like a mutual fund, but instead of picking the stocks based on someone’s wisdom or discipline in the world of investments, there’s also the S&P 500 and that takes the 500 most successful American companies and the return over that time is absolutely astounding. Even Mr. Buffet who I’ve had the incredible fortune of not just being a follower of his but to become I hope a fairly close friend, has said to me several times, “Don’t try to pick stocks, Benji. Just try to get in on the index. Buy the market.” It’ll do, generally speaking, better than if you picked stocks by yourself. Sometimes it won’t, but please buy the index and stick with it for a long period of time and you’ll be a happy camper. Don’t try to get in there and outperform the market or the work that other people have done selecting stocks. Just go with the market itself.

That’s incredible advice. Now, to switch gears slightly, I’m an 80s kid and I loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I often will recite some of your lines, like if my kids aren’t listening, I’ll say, “Anyone? Anyone?

[laughs] I hear that all the time. I hear it when people don’t realize it’s yours truly right there. I’ll be standing at the meat counter and the question will be, “Should we get this cut or that cut?” And they’ll say, “Anyone want to try to guess? Anyone? Anyone?”

It’s the best movie line ever.

And take it from me, it wasn’t in the script. I adlibbed it as we went along. My God, I’m glad I did it.


And that’s another thing: be open to what life throws in your direction. Don’t assume you have to follow along a pre-determined path to wherever your destination is. By all means, be open to anything that comes along. It just so happens that one of the producers of that movie was a close, close friend of mine. He put me in the movie, and he just gave me a few lines to say and talk for five minutes about the current economic situation and see where it takes you. I did it; I talked about what was on my mind about economics and it worked out incredibly well.

Voodoo economics!

Yes, voodoo economics, exactly! What did President Bush call that? Voodoo economics. That was the biggest day of my life. I was absolutely gobsmacked; you could have knocked me over with a pretzel.

Now, did acting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off predate your teaching?

Oh, no. No, no, no. My teaching predated that, and I thought I was just doing my teaching. Actually, when the extras who played students started laughing and applauding, I thought it was because they were learning something about economics, and I was so happy that I thought I was getting through to them about economics. They weren’t going to get a better teacher, because I passed on to them what I had learned from years of studying at Columbia University about economics, from years of studying about economics at Yale University and from having a father who was an economist and a fairly good investor.

What a brilliant life you’ve had.

I’m blessed beyond words that it’s my life. All of us living in the United States of America are blessed beyond words, just to be an American. To accidentally, by pure chance, to become a movie star, albeit a small movie star, out of nowhere, that’s unbelievable good fortune. I have so many things to be grateful for, beyond all imagining. I’m just the luckiest man in the world.

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