Money Lessons from TV Shows

Photo credit: Pablo Garcia-Saldaña

I wrote this when I had a fever, so forgive me if it gets increasingly disordered.

Downton Abbey

I've seen several different versions of the "Money Lessons from Downton Abbey" article, often citing Lord Grantham's major losses after failing to diversify and banking big on a failed railroad scheme in season 3, or Thomas's gullibility in buying rotten black market food in season 2. One of the lessons they don't often cover, which has been more implied than shown directly in the last few seasons, is that the estate manages to outlast its peers because of the willingness of the new management, Lady Mary and Tom Branson, to embrace new ideas. Young and experimental, they are able to carefully consider suggestions that Lord Grantham would consider "not how things are done," such as running a shop or renting out land to businesses. At the same time, they're wary of any scheme that involves selling off land, aware that land is their most important asset. I kind of wish the show would focus more on these nuts and bolts financial storylines, but I also kind of understand why they don't!


The economics of Friends are patently absurd: mid-twenties singles living in huge apartments, frequently shopping and wearing the latest fashions, and spending all their time in a coffee shop, while complaining that they have dead-end jobs and don't make any money. (I don't even get how they have that much time to spend together--if Chandler works days and Monica works nights, would they ever see each other?) As the show goes on, even the few nods to "your job's a joke, you're broke" disappear, as the Friends advance in their careers and stage lavish weddings. In later seasons, the product placement becomes insufferable. One episode is just straight up commercial for Pottery Barn.

With all that said, here are a few positive lessons you can learn from Friends, if you manage to avoid the negative stuff:

  • Steps to being an adult: Refuse money from parents. Get a job. Cut up credit cards.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that different members of your friend group may have different financial situations, and choose restaurants and activities that you can all afford.
  • "Where does 10% of your paycheck go?" "In the bank!"
  • If you have a rent-controlled apartment, hang onto it.

Mad Men

This is another show that glorifies conspicuous consumption (though it does so while exploring the emptiness of it… sort of. It's about as effective as an anti-smoking commercial that shows a guy really enjoying a cigarette. "Don't do this, kids… Ahhhhh.") Don Draper makes so ridiculously much money that he never seems to have financial worries. But he's managed to get himself into that place by being smart in specific ways. He's good enough at his job and has built enough of a reputation that he can be a diva in ways that benefit him, commanding a high salary and refusing to be locked into a contract. It's acknowledged that not everyone has that privilege to throw around. Peggy and Joan are also amazing at their jobs, but they have to fight tooth and nail for every hard-won promotion. Joan's story, in particular, shows the value of getting promises in writing.


Roseanne was the first show to really depict a working-class family with a realistic view of what it means, logistically and emotionally, to live paycheck-to-paycheck with uncertain sources of income. Tom is a contractor with seasonal work that depends on physical labor, so anytime he's injured or the weather is bad, there's no income. Roseanne moves from menial job to menial job to fill in the gaps, and there's enough time spent in the show at each of her workplaces to make it seem like she really spends a lot of hours working. When she's home, she's dealing with kid chaos, or calling utility companies to beg, cajole, and lie to keep the lights on. Anything they do manage to put away is quickly eaten up by small emergencies, like a broken appliance. While the show isn't instructive about how to manage money per se, it does effectively depict an unwinnable situation and promote compassion for folks who are struggling, and not through lack of hard work.

30 Rock

Over the course of the show, beleaguered comedy writer Liz Lemon learns a number of money lessons from the wealthy executive Jack Doneghy. After admitting she has $12,000 in checking because she doesn't know the next step, Liz asks, "Can you show me that thing rich people do where they make money into more money?" (This is referenced in the title of one of my favorite little investing books, That Thing Rich People Do!) While Jack is reputed to be a good investor, he can be too aggressive; when Kenneth asks Jack to to invest his coffee can full of cash for him, Jack bets it all on a "sure thing" deal that turns out to be a con, demonstrating the value of diversification. But I feel like Jack wouldn't have made the same mistake with his own money, suggesting the additional lesson: nobody cares as much about your money as you!

Saturday Night Live

Here is a show that demonstrates the value of diversification. Shows that bank on the talent of a particular star, the journey of a particular character, or the chemistry of a particular relationship risk losing their cachet if the actor decides to walk. Remember that season of X-Files without Mulder? Or The Office after Steve Carrell left? In the latter case, the ensemble cast almost made it work, and large ensemble shows like Cheers and even the aforementioned Downton Abbey managed to keep on ticking after losing major elements of their cast. But Saturday Night Live, along with numerous soap operas, prove that the key to a show's longevity over multiple decades is the willingness to invest in multiple directions and refusal to place all of one's eggs in one basket.

Garfield & Friends

Why would a housecat hate Mondays? He doesn't work. Could it be that Garfield actually--loves--Jon? And he hates when he has to go to work? A subtle but powerful argument for early retirement if I ever heard one.


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