I, myself, have been surprised, when confessing my secret predilection for a certain reality television franchise, at the number of intellectual types who cop to the same viewing habits, from litigators to literati — even including a surgeon!
But the genre that provides so many of us with seemingly harmless, mindless entertainment — wherein we scoff at the lifestyle follies and social dramas of the "Real Housewives of (you name it)," among other shows — took a serious and seriously tragic turn last week when one cast member’s husband, Russell Armstrong, took his own life, leaving three children behind and exposing his troubled personal and financial affairs to public scrutiny.
I’ve written here before on the foreclosure curse that seems to have affected "Real Housewives" franchise cast members across the country; at latest count, 12 of the ladies’ homes have been in some stage of foreclosure, and most of those properties were eventually repossessed by the bank.
But as I turned a much more concerned eye to some reality television programming this weekend, in the wake of this tragedy, it became crystal clear to me that there are a number of financial cautionary tales we can take away from the franchise.
I won’t name names, as anyone who watches the shows will instantly know the references, but the events of last week and the multiple divorces and other strained relationships displayed on the shows could be seen as suggesting that these financial dramas either evidence or create deeper emotional or life management crises.
Long story short: a long list of reasons us regular folks with untelevised lives should avoid them or, if we’re already committing them, interpret these behaviors as flaming red flags and take actions or get help to remedy the behavior.
1. Creating burdensome debt. At least nine of the franchise’s "housewives," their husbands and/or their businesses have filed for bankruptcy, usually as a result of a failed business deal, the down market, a spending problem, or some combination of the three. And many times we’ve literally watched them spend like there’s no tomorrow, only to have tomorrow come heralded with a headline about their collection lawsuit, foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings.
2. Maintaining financial secrets — or financial ignorance — in your marriage. Last year, one housewife and her children were very publicly embarrassed when they were evicted from their home, on camera. When she spoke about the experience of having been evicted the same season as she and her daughter had plastic surgery, she explained that she simply had no knowledge of her household’s finances and that her husband had never told her that cash flow was so tight.
3. Keeping up with the (fill in the blank). Almost every "Real Housewives" franchise has at least one or two bona fide wealthy women on the cast, and a number of cast members living on the brink of bankruptcy, some of whom probably hope to build notoriety and a platform on which they can make a living going forward. But as the latter try to keep up with the former in terms of spending and entertaining on the show, financial collapse is an almost inevitable result.
In the words of Russell Armstrong’s attorney, "These couples join these shows, and then they keep trying to outdo each other and they end up spending all their money trying to sustain a lifestyle that’s unrealistic and wasn’t there prior to the show." Despite his belief that Armstrong’s debt was not the reason he took his life, the attorney pointed out that "the weekly social events, the dinners and … trying to pretend you have unlimited resources in Beverly Hills is tough."
4. Spending more than you earn (i.e., overspending). One flush housewife of New York, Jill Zarin, has several times preached that the key to financial prosperity is simply to spend less than you make. This adage, while simple, definitely seems to put her at the less-populated extreme end of the spending spectrum when it comes to Bravo stars; one husband on a family special the network aired this weekend estimated that his wife spends roughly $20,000 every month on clothes and things for their children, with no concept of how that compares to their income.
By contrast, a bankruptcy filing last year revealed that one "Housewives" cast member had an income from the show of exactly $3,000 per episode — and this very cast member had been filmed paying in stacks of cash for her young children’s shopping spree.
New York’s Bethenny Frankel, who is no longer on the show but recently sold her Skinnygirl margarita line for reportedly more than $120 million, is by far the exception to the rule that cast members seem to spend vastly more during their on-screen shopping trips, dinners, parties and vacations than they will ever earn by virtue of being on the show.
5. Continuing to overspend, even when you’re in debt. Every human being has a different set of priorities and values than every other human being. As such, one person’s overspending seems like a totally sensible expense to another. But when you’re months out of a fresh bankruptcy — or just around the corner from being evicted — it seems irresponsible, at best, and insane, at worst, to be paying for mother-daughter plastic surgeries or spending five figures (many times over) on a toddler’s birthday party.
These examples are extreme, no doubt, but who among us doesn’t know someone who uses credit cards to float their fancy purchases, lie to their spouse about money, or have burdensome debt? Hopefully these extreme examples, and their extreme outcomes, seen in living color and writ large on television, will help remind us of the extreme havoc these same dysfunctional financial habits can wreak in our own lives.