5 personal finance lessons from TV shows

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Joey Held

As a writer, Joey Held has specialized in business, marketing, sports, music and insurance topics for more than a decade. He's also a podcaster …

We often watch TV shows to escape. It’s nice to put something on for an hour and enter a new world, complete with our favorite (and not-so-favorite) characters.

But sometimes, those shows are more in-tune with real life. Beyond providing a glimpse into the daily grind, they offer some really sound advice. (If you caught our first article on popular music, you may know where this is going...)

Here are five shows that drop great personal finance lessons. Note: This article contains show or episode spoilers

Schitt's Creek

Understand the successes and pitfalls of real estate investment


There are several different financial lessons scattered throughout the six seasons of Schitt’s Creek — including in the very first episode, when the family learns their business manager stole their money and headed off to the Cayman Islands. That lesson: If you’re entrusting someone like an accountant or financial planner with your money, make sure they’re transparent with open lines of communication so you know what’s going on with your finances.

But a recurring theme throughout the show is the living situation for the Roses, which soon turns into a business situation, too. Johnny Rose, the family patriarch, becomes part-owner of the motel the family is living in. He joins the ownership group alongside Stevie Budd, whose family previously owned the motel.

Seeing success with one location, the pair decides to expand into multiple buildings. There are lessons in looking for the right location—whether you’re buying your first home or renting your first apartment, or purchasing additional property to rent out—and understanding potential challenges, perks or concessions you may have to make.

By the end of the series, Johnny, Stevie and town mayor Roland Schitt head to New York to pitch an investment firm. While that deal falls through, another group of investors is excited about the opportunity, and they partner up with the Schitt’s Creek crew. It’s a good reminder to find a lender or insurance company that’s willing to work with you and put you in the best financial position to succeed.      

Rosebud Motel was such an integral part of the show that the actual building was put on the market for $1.6 million. Not a bad haul! 

And that’s one final lesson from the show: Learn when you’ve got something good going, and see if there are ways to expand it. Maybe that means adding one more percent of your paycheck into a retirement fund or sharing budgeting tips with other family members.

The Office

Dream big...but keep your financial goals attainable

In a show filled with awkward moments, The Office episode “Scott’s Tots” delivered perhaps the most uncomfortable half-hour in sitcom history. 

We learn that Michael Scott, in an effort to look cool and get his name in the local paper, promised a group of third-graders that he’d pay for their college tuition if they graduated high school. Well, those kids are now high school seniors, and Michael doesn’t have the money to pay for their tuition. He then has to deliver the news in front of their classroom, and it goes about as well as you’d expect.

After he leaves the classroom, one student follows Michael out into the hallway and tells him what he did was “messed up.” Michael guiltily agrees to pay for the student’s college books.

Whether you’re trying to save money or make more of it, it’s perfectly normal and even encouraged to create a financial plan. But those goals should be realistic and centered around things that are attainable. For example, if you were saving money for a new house, you might start making coffee at home instead of buying it to-go, or eating out at a restaurant only two times per month rather than five. You wouldn’t stop buying groceries altogether.   

When your financial goals turn unrealistic, you may run into trouble. So much trouble that you’ll find yourself declaring bankruptcy.

Parks and Recreation

Keep track of your spending

Ron Swanson is not a fan of most technology — he doesn’t like having a digital record of his online purchase history; he heavily invests in gold rather than any kind of cryptocurrency, and he hates everything Google Earth is doing.

As a result, he doesn’t keep records of what he’s done and tries to stay as far off the grid as possible. 

While Ron certainly has some valid concerns about online privacy, it’s worth keeping track of your purchases and income. It makes life a lot easier come tax season — and can save you if the IRS comes calling. Plus, it helps identify areas where you may be overspending. If you have a side hustle, you can quickly see if there are business expenses to write off.

When planning to create any kind of budget, a financial tracking system is a must. Luckily, if the thought of Excel spreadsheets makes you cringe, there are several options that can do this kind of tracking and planning for you, from Mint to Honeydue.


Be wary of lending money to friends and family


When a TV show becomes popular, fans like to dissect every element of it. That’s how we learn fun facts like how much money Chandler lent to Joey throughout the course of Friends.

In the season eight episode “The One Where Rachel Is Late,” Joey tallies up all the things Chandler has paid for, including Joey’s rent, acting lessons, headshots and a spectacularly large amount of food. 

One Reddit user calculated all these costs and determined Chandler spotted Joey an estimated $114,260 throughout the show (and that’s probably underestimating the total amount of food Joey consumed). Do you think Joey ever paid any of that back? 

At some point in life, you may receive a financial windfall. It could come from an insurance payout, a death of a relative, a work bonus, etc. However, with more money comes a higher likelihood of friends and family asking to borrow some.

While it’s okay to lend money here and there for smaller items, it can add up quickly if you’re not careful. What’s more, it can lead to hurt feelings, drama and potentially ruined relationships. 

A good rule of thumb to remember: if you loan money to friends or family, think of it as a gift, and never offer more than you’re comfortable with. Down the line, you may receive that money back — but don’t set that expectation.

Derry Girls

Saving now can pay off later

Derry Girls follows a group of high-school girls (and one boy) growing up in a modest neighborhood in Ireland. In one episode, the school announces a trip to Paris, but the gang quickly learns that adventure will cost quite a bit of money.

One wealthy classmate tells the girls to simply dip into the family trust fund. After all, she’s used hers several times before and it comes in handy for things like this. Unfortunately, the show’s main characters don’t have any kind of fund in place, so they end up missing out on the chance to go to Paris.

The lesson here is the value of saving money, ideally in a way that generates compound interest. For example, putting money in a savings or money-market account, dividend stocks or certain types of bonds can generate substantial interest over time, giving you additional income.

Even if the family stowed a modest $1,000 investment away and it grew at a 10% rate, they’d have made a total of $2,594 after ten years. Because of the way compound investing works, after 50 years, that $1,000 investment would be worth $117,391.

That’s enough for multiple trips to Paris.

Next time you’re watching your favorite show, see if it offers any financial takeaways. You may be surprised at what you come across! Just don’t forget to stretch in between episodes.

Want more pop culture personal finance lessons (and a truly eclectic Spotify playlist)? Check out this advice from musicians.