Financial Lessons in “Adulting” I Learned from Television
When I was a young kid still living in New Jersey my elementary school offered an additional schooling year between Kindergarten and first grade they called Transitional Primary or “TP.” To help determine who the school would recommend for TP all of the Kindergarten students were given an oral assessment. Even though I was only five years old or so at the time, one question from this quiz stands out vividly in my mind: the teacher pointed to a spot on her hand and asked what specific part of the body it was. When I replied “palm” she seemed impressed and, to my recollection, even commented that not many of the others had been able to answer that one. That’s when I explained that I had known it because on my favorite show — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — the villain Shredder had once said he had the Turtles in the palm of his hand.
I share this story to refute the idea that television is a mindless medium that rots the brains of children. Aside from educational series like Bill Nye the Science Guy that I still think back on as an adult, there are plenty of positive things that mainstream programs have inadvertently instilled in me over the years. This includes lessons about finances, money, and “adulting,” as it were. With that in mind I thought I’d highlight a few of my top lessons from some of my favorite sitcoms:
Get renters insurance — Friends
Money actually came up quite often during the 10 years that Friends was on the air. From the hardships that go with transitioning between jobs to the expensive nature of dream weddings, the show managed to sneak in some good personal finance tips between incessant trips to the coffee shops (seriously, how did they afford all of that coffee and those New York apartments?). Still the takeaway that stuck with me the most wasn’t about rent control but about renters insurance.
Ever since the pilot episode we’ve known that Rachel’s father could have a bit of a harsh side. Three years later we got to see it first hand as Dr. Green puts Ross (who was of course dating Rachel at the time) through the wringer. However the two do find common ground in mocking Rachel including her lack of renters insurance, even going so far as to make jokes about what would happen if her belongings were stolen.
While this scene made quite the impression on me and got me Googling renters insurance (albeit several years after the show originally aired), that’s likely not the case for everyone. In fact two-thirds of those who rent don’t have policies in place to insure their belongings. That’s really a shame considering how inexpensive most renters insurance policies are. Perhaps with companies like Geico pushing the affordability of renters insurance and episodes of Friends still in heavy syndication rotation, more young adults will eventually get on board.
Don’t ignore your money problems — The King of Queens
Learning lessons from books, TV shows, or movies is one thing but learning from your mistakes is often the most important thing you can do. Unfortunately that was never Doug Heffernan’s strong suit. Just two years after Kevin James’s character on The King of Queens fell into a money trap by purchasing a new car at a time when his union was going on strike, Doug once again set himself up for financial disaster by embarking on an expensive vacation even though his father in law had discovered a major mold problem in their home.
Incidentally this fiscal lesson could be taken at face value or as more of a metaphor. While the Heffernans’ mold issues ended up costing them a hefty sum to fix when they got home (and ruined their pricey getaway in the meantime), the real problem is with how Doug handled it to begin with. Trying to run away from your problems — whether they be directly or indirectly monetary in nature — and ignoring them is a surefire way to only make them worse. So, even if Doug never seems to learn from the errs of his way, we definitely should.
Learn to be satisfied instead of chasing status for status sake — Frasier
Here’s a lesson that’s not explicitly laid out in the source material but is taught through parody. Like with Friends, those watching Frasier may have wondered how the title character can continually afford a swanky skyrise apartment, multiple high-end dinners per week, a bottomless bottle of sherry, and more while only holding employment as a radio talk show host (although he does do some private practice psychiatry for a bit). However, in this case, the show often pokes fun at Dr. Crane by highlighting just how ridiculous his status-chasing ways can be. In particular, I’m reminded of an episode where Frasier and his brother Niles sneak their way into an exclusive day spa and are initially blown away by the experience —but are later led to be continually disappointed as they discover even more exclusive areas they aren’t able to access.
As viewers, we can quickly see that the Crane boys are being taken for a ride as they fall for this “exclusivity” bait. While we may laugh at their buffoonish behavior, it’s hard not to relate to their pursuit of status. More importantly, though, the lesson here is that being satisfied is one of the keys to financial prosperity. Ultimately, comparing yourself to others and spending your hard-earned money just to flaunt are surefire ways to derail your finances in the long run.
Have an emergency fund (and live within your means) — Arrested Development
Honestly, the cult hit Arrested Development could be seen as one big financial and life lesson. Nevertheless, I want to focus on what it has to say about emergency funds and living within your means. Throughout the show, we see the upheaval that the Bluths — especially Michael — endure following the arrest of George Sr. Among the big questions that come up again and again is how the family will be able to stay afloat financially while their business is in turmoil. Of course, these fears never lead any of them to actually make changes such as downsizing or cutting out unnecessary expenses.
To be fair, I suppose they do have an emergency fund of sorts, as we’re reminded that “there’s always money in the banana stand.” Then again, we aren’t really supposed to believe that the Bluth’s will be bootstrapping their family by focusing on that small frozen treat business. In any case, if you’re bingeing this show on Netflix, just remember to follow Michael’s advice (although he’s a bit spotty himself) and pretty much no one else’s.
Don’t count on your parents to co-sign — Boy Meets World
First I feel like I should say that ABC’s Boy Meets World might rank as my second favorite show of all time behind Sports Night. Although the show was often wacky and sometimes a bit melodramatic, it really did cover some important lessons that come up in the lives of many adolescents. In the case of Cory and Topanga, some of those lessons even came a bit earlier than they would for others.
During the final season of the show, the young, lifelong lovers tie the knot and begin to navigate married life together while also still attending university. After finding that the dormitory the college has reserved for married students is less than ideal, the new Mr. and Mrs. Matthews set their sights on a nice starter home (with a nook!). Sadly for them the purchase of the home would require a co-signer.
When Cory and Topanga present their “great” home buying plan to the older Mathews couple, they decline to help. As Cory’s father Alan explains, while he still loves his son and new daughter, now is the time for them to be independent. It’s a harsh lesson, to be sure, but one that needs to be learned: being an adult means being on your own. However, as we can see from the pained reactions from Alan and his wife Amy after the conversation has ended, being right on this issue doesn’t make it any easier.
Who says that you can’t learn anything from TV? In addition to programs like Shark Tank and The Profit that are explicitly about finance, there is also plenty we can learn (and that I have learned) from the lives of our favorite characters. Whether it’s about the necessity for insurance, the importance of facing your money issues head on, or realizing the true nature of independence, it turns out that the financial advice sitcoms can offer is really nothing to laugh at.