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Ready, Set, Action! What TV Characters Teach Us About Money

Being a couch potato may have an impact on your wallet if you’re mimicking the financial choices of some of TV’s characters. Sitcoms, dramas, and even reality shows often include intriguing plot lines and decisions by characters or contestants that offer lessons about money… though they’re usually framed as “good TV” rather than “teachable moments.”

Some glorify the idea of celebrity and make especially younger viewers think it’s easy to achieve the lifestyle lived by Hannah Montana or the New York City teens on “Gossip Girl.” Other programs show characters with a skewed idea of money compared to their salary and careers, explains Mike Schiano, author of “Spend Your Way to Wealth” and director of education for the non-profit Consumer Advocates Credit Counselors in Boca Raton.

“They give you this unrealistic view of the household. Even single people on TV have tons of money to do whatever they want. If you go into soap operas, forget it – nobody has a job but everybody lives in big homes,” he says. Even more strange? “Rarely do you see them use a credit card.” Realistic? Hardly, but if you watch carefully, you can pick up some credit clues to use. Here are a few…

90210

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West Beverly High student Naomi Clark was thrilled to have her older sister return from France, and Jen easily convinced Naomi to use her trust fund to buy and furnish a new house. She also deceived Naomi to give her more money for a racehorse. Naomi made those decisions in a matter of minutes instead of having the lengthy discussions necessary when spending thousands or even millions of dollars.

Credit lesson learned: “[On TV], nobody ever plans their spending. There’s never a challenge with buying things,” Schiano says. “What you’re missing on television is you see a lot of spending, but you don’t see a lot of saving. You don’t see a lot of talk about investing for the future.” You also don’t hear about tanking credit scores that could keep those of us in the real world from owning a home or buying a car. In short, think before you swipe.

The Office

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Image is everything for “The Office’s” Michael Scott, so he makes financial promises and can’t deliver, says Laurie Hutzler, a story and character consultant for ETB Screenwriting. In the show’s fourth season, Scott became overwhelmed with debt while dating former company executive Jan Levinson, living outside of his means to pay for her flashy Porsche and other splurges. After quitting a part-time job as telemarketer, he was forced to have an honest conversation with Jan about money.

Credit lesson learned: Now he lives within his means, owns a condo, and drives a PT Cruiser – a big improvement, says Al Martin, professor of sociology at DePaul University and president of What Works Communications, a marketing communications firm. “Yes, he’s a bit of a buffoon, but his sense of lifestyle is not as out of whack as, say, the ladies on ‘Sex and the City.’” In other words, don’t pull out the plastic to keep up with the big execs or designer labels, and you’ll be better able to use credit in a realistic way.

Project Runway

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The designers on “Project Runway” take on the weekly challenge of completing a task with limited funds. They might have as little as $50 or $100 to create a look. What they do well, says Hutzler, is “take what limited means they’ve been given and be the most creative in maximizing that in order to fulfill the challenge successfully.

Credit lesson learned: It sends a positive message that you should use the money you have wisely, to the best of your ability. Good rule of thumb: Only spend on credit what you can afford to pay back sooner rather than later. Carrying lots of debt can reflect poorly on your credit score.

30 Rock

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Liz Lemon may be one of the best examples of a lead TV character who displays a good use of money, Martin says. “Not only is she frugal, but she can’t actually even afford to purchase an apartment in New York,” he says.

Credit lesson learned: “Unlike a lot of other shows, like Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City, it places her within a realistic realm of what life in the city is all about.” Take that idea one step further by having realistic expectations about mortgage rates and how your credit profile will affect a potential home purchase before you start scouring the real estate listings.

The next time you get set to watch TV, take a lesson.. your wallet may thank you for it later.

“Ready, Set, Action! What TV Characters Teach Us About Money” is provided by Experian.com