To market effectively, it is critical that companies find a way to relate to you, the consumer, in a way that helps you identify with their brand, products, or ideas. In general, the more you can relate to a company, the more likely you are to follow that company and purchase its goods and services.

One approach to this marketing strategy is the celebrity endorsement. The logic is simple: people look up to (maybe even idolize) celebrities so when that individual promotes a product, consumers feel the urge to mimic that celebrity’s actions.

It’s a common marketing concept, one that we’re all familiar with whether we realize it or not. Here’s an example. Under Armour pays NBA superstar Steph Curry to appear in ads endorsing the Under Armour athletic apparel brand.

the economics of a sitcom lifestyle

Curry’s likability as an NBA star compels many who see those advertisements to purchase the product that he’s endorsing. If the marketing campaign is successful, consumers will mimic Curry’s actions and style by purchasing high-end Under Armour products.

Now, let’s shift gears and look at the sitcom business where the process is a bit different.

TV programs and networks are selling us a story. And rather than endorsing a specific product or brand, the characters are endorsing a certain lifestyle. When we watch our favorite sitcom, we aren’t viewing a 30-second advertisement for a pair of shoes. No, we’re watching a 30-minute television program that subtly promotes the characters’ lifestyles.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I do wonder how much of those sitcom lifestyles consumers unknowingly absorb and into their own mindset. And I’m especially interested in what would happen if consumers were to mimic the unsustainable financial behaviors that the characters in their favorite television programs exhibit.

The Economics of Friends

the economics of a sitcom lifestyleA team of researchers estimated the incomes for each of the characters in Friends. The results were alarming. Joey and Monica’s annual incomes are projected to average around $29,000. They estimate Rachel’s average income as a New York server at approximately $20,000 a year.

Now consider how these modest salaries pair with the cost of living in an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village. While the show was still on the air, the rent for the Friend’s cast would have been about $1,250 a month, or $2,500 for the entire unit. Add on a conservative $150 for apartment fees, water, and utilities and the average character was spending $1,400 a month just for a place to sleep. That equals an annual housing cost of $16,800! And again, that’s on the conservative side.

That expense alone would be all it takes to devour all of Rachel’s taxed earnings each year! And it would leave Joey and Monica with only $600 a month (or $20 a day!) for their other expenses. Imagine those two characters surviving on $20 a day in New York. They’d probably have a hard enough time just feeding themselves. Unless they were extremely frugal, they’d probably end up on the streets with Rachel.

I found this look into the costs of living a “Friends” lifestyle interesting, so here are a few more:

  • In the first season of Full House, Danny Tanner was 29 years old making a modest salary as an entry level newscaster. Impressively, this single father of three was somehow living in a San Francisco home valued at almost $1 million (today it’s worth about $3 million).
  • The Big Bang Theory’s Penny Hofstadter is a Cheesecake Factory waitress living in a Pasadena apartment that costs roughly $2,300 a month ($27,600 a year).
  • In Seinfeld, Elaine Benes works as a publishing assistant making $35-45k. She pays a minimum of $1,500 a month to live in Manhattan in the early 1990s.
  • In King of Queens, the Heffernan’s salaries are made up of Doug’s delivery driver job and Carrie’s secretary position. It seems likely that this household would struggle to afford their monthly mortgage payment of $3,400 – $3,900 on their annual income of $75-90k.
  • In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw’s monthly rent in New York is projected at $3,000. Basic math says her journalism job that pays roughly $38k won’t be enough to cover her base rent after taxes are accounted for.

You get the point. Many of the characters we connect with on screen live in a make believe financial world. So why are shows typically so terrible at producing a believable financial plot?

Location, Location, Location.

As you probably noticed, sitcoms are often set in large expensive cities. That exorbitant cost of living doesn’t matter much when you’re a sitcom character. But what about us average Joe’s with real life expenses? How hard is it to build wealth in major metropolitan cities like San Francisco, L.A., Chicago and Manhattan?

The short answer? Difficult.

Take New York, for example. The average NY resident has an average non-mortgage debt burden of $25,687. Furthermore, their average disposable income only amounts to $11,981. (Plus, these numbers would probably be even worse if they weren’t drastically skewed and improved by New Yorkers with enormous wealth.)

In 2017, Smart Asset conducted a study in an effort to determine the top ten cities in the United States for people looking to get out of debt and start building wealth. Sitcoms don’t feature obscure cities like Glendale, Arizona or Wichita, Kansas. That’s because they don’t have the same broad appeal and relatability that major cities do. But a middle class lifestyle in these cities is probably closer to what most of us experience. And Glendale and Wichita are noteworthy because they feature some of the lowest debt ratios and best job markets for young Americans. But those elements don’t add up to a good sitcom, so we tend to see vastly different lifestyles that are often at odds with a solid financial framework.

The Friendship Proximity Issue

To my mind, the biggest factor viewers need to be cognizant about when watching sitcoms is the false paradigm of social proximity. Think about this: What would Seinfeld be without Kramer 6 feet away from Jerry’s door, constantly making his dramatic entrances into the screen? What would Friends be without Joey and Chandler available across the hall?

Writers in sitcoms typically build characters with varying professions, which yield varying incomes. Since it would be a massive headache for writers to make all the characters consistently available for dialogue they have to ignore the financial incapability of portions of the cast when they create their living situations.

No doubt, Joey and Chandler could consistently go to Knick’s basketball games. But for Joey to have sufficient disposable income to afford those pricy tickets, he’d have to make sacrifices in his housing and location to lower his cost of living. These are the types of sacrifices that writers ignore in order to avoid a segmented and inefficient plot.

It might be difficult to calculate the effect that this faulty paradigm would have on viewers, but I bet it isn’t tough to come up with a few examples in your own life where friendships have been strained due to the challenge of keeping up with each other financially despite differences that lead to varying cash flows.

A Few Final Thoughts

In life, we will all build friendship circles that contain folks with diverse collections of professions, ideologies, and lifestyles. Within that circle of friends, each unique financial situation presents an opportunity to become acquainted with a slightly different lifestyle which is likely impacted by that individual’s financial position.

Looking at sitcom lifestyle impossibilities can help to shed light on some unsustainable socio-financial situations in your life. It can also help you understand that big city living works for some people, but for many it’s just not a financial possibility. Or at least financially responsible.

I hope this article has encouraged you to take a look at your own financial situation. Think about your lifestyle choices such as where you’ve chosen to live and consider how the friendships you maintain can have a positive or negative effect on your financial decisions.

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