5 Insane Things You Believe About Money (Thanks to Movies)
I bet every one of you can remember the first time financial reality smacked you in the face like a Hulk-thrown engine block. ("I work two jobs, shouldn't I be able to afford to get this festering wisdom tooth taken out?"). That's because unless your parents were wealthy, you left school knowing nothing about how money worked. We have a trillion dollars in credit card debt to show for it, along with an upper class who just can't figure out what the rest of us are bitching about.
So why does the average person have no idea what kind of lifestyle their job should afford them? As usual, I blame Hollywood. After all, in the world of movies and TV ...
Even Apocalyptic Poverty Isn't That Bad
Raise your hand if you've ever been watching a movie that takes place in an apocalyptic, nightmarish future, saw how the people were living, and thought, "Hey, that's nicer than my place!"
For instance, in Dredd, the planet has been ruined by a worldwide cataclysm, and the remnants of humanity are crammed into overcrowded mega-cities. Within that, Dredd has to venture into the worst of the worst slums to take down a drug lord by shooting 57 people in the face. Here's what those slums look like:
Neat, clean, working appliances, plenty of space, no damage on the walls -- clearly able to get paint and repairs done without much problem. Futuristic ultra-crime aside, how many of you haven't at some point lived in a place worse than this? In Elysium, Matt Damon's character is living in the shattered post-apocalypse of 2154, and has a low-level, manual labor job in a robot factory. Here's his house:
"The washer is busted so I have to clean my work shirts on my abs."
I mean, it's not great, but I've definitely had worse kitchens than that. I think my favorite has to be Zion from The Matrix. Humanity has literally been driven underground by killbots. Here's their dining room:
I mean, I realize everything is filthy, but it seems like a pretty good scrubbing would turn this into the kind of place that would rent for $3,000 a month in New York. Or, you know, if you just left it looking exactly like that.
Look, I get it -- in the world of TV and movies, everything is cooler, prettier, and sexier than real life. The nerds are hotter than your high school's prom king, the "plain" girls are played by models, and the "fat" guys are thinner than most people in line at a Walmart. So, as we've previously mentioned, the poor girl from the "wrong side of the tracks" in Pretty in Pink would have been considered rich where I grew up -- she lives in a spacious, two-story home in the suburbs with a manicured lawn. She got her own working car at age 16:
I couldn't have even rented that car until I was 32.
But here's the thing: Hollywood's heightened reality is supposed to work in the other direction, too. Fictional horrors are supposed to be more horrifying than the real thing -- crime in TV dramas is all flamboyant serial killers and brutal dismemberments, and arguments in reality shows always turn into vicious, hair-pulling catfights. But when Hollywood tries to portray the worst of the worst poverty -- the kind you can only get in a post-apocalyptic future -- the worst they can think of is an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with some smudges on the walls. Their poverty doesn't look so bad even when they're trying to terrify us with how poor the characters are.
So ... how is that supposed to make you feel about your own life? Tell me that none of you haven't had at least one point in your life when you would have gladly traded your accommodations for the run-down but freaking enormous Victorian house in Fight Club?
You could clean it up nicely with a little soap.
Financial Wounds Always Heal
There's this sitcom trope that has been playing out since the invention of the camera, and it always drives me freaking crazy:
Some rowdy kids are goofing around, and someone throws a ball and breaks a window (or knocks a hole in a wall, or otherwise damages the house or furnishings in some way). A parent comes out and tells the kids to take it outside, and ... that's it. The next time you see that window, it's fine again. I know for a fact there are certain viewers out there who feel actual anxiety when they see items get broken around a fictional house. Even if it's an action movie fight that smashes up the furniture ...
If the homeowner wasn't murdered shortly after that mirror broke, she'd have to budget for the repair.
That's because a certain percentage of us grew up in homes where you knew that if a baseball went through a window, it was staying broken. Maybe somebody tapes a board over it. I remember accidentally knocking a hole in a piece of paneling when I was 9. The hole was still there when I moved away to college. There was just ... never money in the budget to fix it. In a house with "money problems," every little screw-up gets recorded on the walls, forever, like a cave painting. Scars in the paint and plaster and carpet, serving as daily reminders that your birth made the world a little bit worse.
Of course, the "self-repairing house" bit is just one way sitcoms reset themselves every week -- the Simpsons have trashed their house dozens of times, and by the next episode, it always looks exactly the same. But then there are movies and shows where entire plotlines turn on the fact that the characters have no money, but they still shrug off the consequences of wrecking things.
Family matters, but not as much as comprehensive house and auto coverage.
In Birdman, they talk constantly about how Michael Keaton's washed-up actor character is broke -- he's having to mortgage his home to pay for the play he's putting on. Then, in a fit of rage, he smashes his dressing room, destroying electronics, decorations, equipment ... and by the next day, not a scratch remains. All I could think was, "Ah, OK -- so when this guy described himself as 'broke' he didn't mean broke broke." Not the way the rest of the world means it, where "broke" means, "I sprung for a new winter jacket, but I'm afraid to wear it out in the rain, because it has to last me at least five years."
Probably my favorite example of this is The Hangover -- someone did the math on the guys' Las Vegas misadventure and figured out they would owe about $60,000, thanks to the trashed hotel room, totaled Mercedes, the emergency room visit, etc. And hey, maybe the Wolf Pack got together and borrowed money to pay for it all, or maybe they got the cash from the groom's rich parents. But that's not the point: The point is nobody is worried about it. At the end, they make it to the wedding and all is well -- they agree to never speak of their chaotic weekend again. There was a time when just having the fee for that emergency room visit hanging over my head would have ruined my peace of mind for months.
Yeah, that's another one -- everyone in movie/TV land has spectacular health insurance, apparently. One of the characters in the slacker comedy Workaholics (who works part time as a telemarketing clerk) had to be rushed to the hospital after a wacky misadventure resulted in him getting impaled in the abdomen by a trophy. He recuperates on the sofa under the influence of strong painkillers later, but they don't show him going to the pharmacy counter to get those pills. Yeah, they can't turn you away at the emergency room, but if you show up to the pharmacy with no money, you're not getting the medicine unless you have a gun and a ski mask.
Otherwise, you just sit there, in pain. And when I say "sit there," I mean at work, not at home -- there's no way that guy's job comes with lots of paid sick days. See, that's what having a terrible cubicle job is really like: It involves multiple stretches of sitting in that chair even when you're in so much pain that you long for the sweet release of death. Speaking of which ...
You Can Live a Comfortable Life With a Menial, Low-Skill Job
Look, I get that some of this is just logistics. For instance, there's a pretty simple reason why everybody on TV has a fairly huge apartment or house -- it's impossible to shoot a TV show in a cramped space. You've got to have room for the equipment, and you've got to have room for the actors to let scenes play out (e.g., different people having different conversations in different rooms at the same time, which can't happen among roommates sharing 400 square feet). They can't simply make all of the characters rich (otherwise we wouldn't identify with them), so they just have to go with it.
But the result is that hourly wage earners live like professionals, and professionals live like millionaires. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby was an architect but the rent for his 1,000-square-foot apartment would have wiped out his whole paycheck before he even had a chance to buy food.
This is what $1.45 million looks like in real life.
And when you watch Modern Family, do you think of the Dunphy's as living in a $2.3 million home? Because they totally do.
Remember: You need $470,000 in cash just for the down payment.
But it's not the living accommodations that bug me -- it's the combination of lifestyle and time. I honestly think this is what screws people up when they go out on their own: The sticker shock that comes with realizing how much time and energy it takes to live what TV says is an average lifestyle. In Hollywood, the barrier for "makes just enough money to not really have to worry about it" is incredibly low.
For example, in the movie Her (which is a wonderful movie, by the way), the main character has a low-level writing job fabricating love letters for people (and I say low-level because there's no way that's a service people are going to pay hundreds of dollars for; they're basically just wordy greeting cards). But with that job, he's able to afford a massive luxury apartment downtown ...
... with all of the latest tech gadgets, and tons of time off, and the ability to take a nice vacation when he feels like it. In the real world, that work would be outsourced to freelancers in India pounding them out for pennies an hour. Maybe he had, I don't know, rich parents or something? If so, they don't mention it, and that's the point -- it's just a given in that universe that having that lifestyle only requires you to be pretty good at a 9-5 office job. In reality, Joaquin Phoenix's character would be sleeping in his car, and sharing it with four other dudes.
That apartment, on the other hand, would belong to the guy who owns the fake letter company -- a guy who spends 100-hour weeks trying to keep a successful business afloat, getting lots of migraines and ulcers in the process. He would joke to his friends how he has a fabulous apartment and never sees it.
"That's how I 'live' here. I swipe his key from under the mat."
But hey, that takes place in the future; maybe there are lots of apartments available because everybody else got eaten by zombies. That's not the case for Sherlock, in which Holmes and Watson have to get the famous apartment at 221B Baker Street together out of financial necessity (Watson was on a military pension, Holmes was freelancing as an occasional crime-solver who doesn't demand payment for his services). That property would sell for $2.8 million dollars in real life. And, sure, Holmes got a deal on the place thanks to his relationship with the owner, but he also has a stylish wardrobe, including shirts in the $200 to $500 range and multiple copies of a trademark overcoat worth about $2,000 each. Watson's trademark jacket (the one with the patch on one shoulder) costs $1,100. When Watson gets married, everyone in the wedding party is adorned in custom suits and dresses ...
... and they host a lavish reception afterward:
And again, in the real world, all of those things are attainable ... if you work yourself like a dog. In the show, they just kind of take whatever freelance jobs they find interesting, whether they pay or not. We briefly see Watson doing work in a clinic, but it's clearly part time, considering they're both able to dash off and take cases at a moment's notice, giving them their full attention. Work simply doesn't get in the way. That choice that virtually all of us have to make -- nice house or car vs. free time and a social life -- simply doesn't exist for them.
On a related note ...
You Can Always Travel if You Really Need to
One of the ways Hollywood conveys poverty with a character is to give them a really terrible car. There's a reason the pre-meth Walter White on Breaking Bad was shown driving a Pontiac Aztek ...
Which basically goes through the "faces of meth" as the the show goes on.
... since it's one of the most notoriously awful cars in history. The Dude in The Big Lebowski had a beaten-up Gran Torino, How I Met Your Mother's Marshall had an awful Pontiac Fiero, and the Married With Children family were saddled with a broken-down Plymouth Duster. But you know what I've never seen happen in a movie or sitcom, ever? A character being unable to get somewhere because they can't afford gas, or can't afford a car repair.
I know this is just for plot convenience -- the same reason the horses never get tired on Game of Thrones. But there was a time in my life when my finances revolved entirely around how many months had elapsed since the last expensive vehicle repair. Most of us don't live in a city with public transportation -- if your car doesn't start because it needs a $200 alternator replaced, you can't get to work. There are people reading this who turned down better jobs purely because they were too far away, and the commute would have eaten a third of their take-home pay in gas money.
And you can't just ride one of those tireless horses to work, because they're even more expensive.
But then there's an even more ridiculous manifestation of this.
Every sitcom occasionally will do a "change of scenery" episode -- usually to Las Vegas or some tropical location, and usually during sweeps. They may wind up having some financial catastrophe while they're there (a gambling mishap, a hilarious accidental marriage), but the cost of the travel itself will never get mentioned. When Friends wanted to do an episode in Las Vegas, they just cut to everyone on the plane, as if last-minute tickets from New York to Las Vegas are the price of a subway token and not freaking $2,000 (and then there's the hotel, meals, cab fare, etc.). The crew on Scrubs dropped everything to go to the janitor's wedding in the Bahamas. When the fictional version of Louis C.K. got the urge, he took a spontaneous trip to China. When the wage slaves on Workaholics want to go to Jamaica, they go.
And this is so much worse than the "gas is free" thing above because in real life, the price of a plane ticket forces us to make some horrible choices. In a TV drama, if there's some emotional situation in which a character can't be at a wedding, or a funeral, or a parent's death bed, it's for plot/character reasons ("I'm still in love with her!" "I just can't forgive him for what he did to us!" "It's too hard seeing him like this!"). In real life, you miss that because you can't afford the trip.
Your job's a joke, and you're broke, except when you go to last-minute, foreign destination, weddings.
Those limitations dictate everything -- if you take that job in another state, you're doing it knowing you won't get to spend Christmas with your family, won't see your best friend's wedding, and may not be there for your parents' final moments of life -- even if you know they're near the end, and you've only got money for one ticket and two days off work, you have to time it so that you're really sure they'll die during one of those two days.
Don't get me wrong -- I know some middle-income folks who take some pretty nice vacations. They also drive very awful cars, and never eat out the rest of the year. Oh, and if the transmission goes out on the Pontiac in February, say goodbye to the vacation in June. Raise your hand if at some point in your life, you've burst into tears because of a noise your car made -- because of what that noise means.
That certainly isn't how it plays out in Hollywood, where ...
Things Can Only Get So Bad, No Matter How Irresponsible You Are
In a recent episode of Broad City -- maybe the best comedy on TV right now -- one of the struggling, 20-something girls (both of whom work part-time customer service jobs) goes on a wacky misadventure while under the influence of pain medication. She winds up at Whole Foods and accidentally buys $1,500 worth of random items, putting them on a credit card. Probably 120 hours of labor went up in smoke right there, and they'll never mention it again. That's the kind of situation that, in my life, would have kept me up nights.
And that, right there, is what I envy most about fictional characters. It's the most important fantasy Hollywood tries to sell us, and I believe it's the biggest reason middle class people tend to look down on the poor: In TV and movies, even the poorest of the poor have room to mess up and still come back from it. In real life, those kind of second chances are what most poor people would kill for.
Let's take Bob's Burgers. Yes, I know it's a cartoon -- I fully accept all of the reality-bending suspension of disbelief that comes with that. But the premise of the show is that this is a failing, family-run restaurant. Bob works a ton of hours, he can't afford employees, and they have to live above the store. They literally never do brisk business there -- they always have two or three customers in the store, at most. Bob doesn't sell enough burgers to even afford the taxes on that place, let alone pay for rent, inventory, or living expenses. The fact that they constantly bring up money stuff makes it hard to ignore, because all I can think is, "They shouldn't be struggling; they should be on the street, eating garbage! All of them! Garbage!" And even that restaurant has more customers than the bar in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In both cases, the business venture is an utter disaster, and in both cases, it's fine.
Bob's financially and emotionally devastating business failure and subsequent descent into substance abuse
didn't do great with test audiences.
That also is a standard trope -- the "failed money-making scheme" bit goes all the way back to The Honeymooners. The losers on The Drew Carey Show try (and fail) to start their own brewery. Pam from The Office pays to go to graphic design school, then has to drop out. Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation comes into some money and blows it on a hilariously ill-conceived business venture. The aforementioned It's Always Sunny gang starts dicktowel.com, and a shady lawyer steals all of their profits.
And no matter how dumb their decisions, no matter how costly the failure, they're in exactly the same spot the next week, as if there is no level you can fail to beyond, "struggling, but getting by." They never lose their homes, the bank doesn't seize their businesses, and they don't have to take a second job instead of sleeping. They have room to try things, take risks, and get hurt, because, after all, that's what defines all fictional protagonists: They act. They keep pushing and experimenting. That's what makes them heroes.
But that, friends, is what a long stretch of real-life poverty can beat out of you.
"They took the bar to cover this. Nice knowing you, bozos."
I think this is the part of poverty that is the hardest to understand from the outside: The sheer weight of knowing you won't get those second chances, and how risk-averse it forces you to be. After I failed at one career, I took out $9,000 in loans to take certification classes in another. It turned out I sucked at that, too. And ... that was it. I was out of chances -- no more student loans (the payments were already higher than I could afford), and my credit cards were maxed out. I got bailed out by a laughably unlikely series of events, but had that not happened, there would have been no bold attempts to move away, or start my own business (though I remember looking seriously into several pyramid schemes intended to gouge desperate people just like me). Those kind of chances take money. That's why the lottery is such a cruel tax on the poor -- it specifically preys on people who are out of options, but still want a way out of that life.
But all that wasted money gets forgotten next week, right?
Then, the rich will look at them and shake their head and say, "See? This is why they're poor! They keep blowing their money on lotto tickets and Amway schemes instead of making sound investments." Like ... what? Education? I totally tried that! And even then, it only worked because I had a family member willing to co-sign the loans, and I didn't have to worry about child care.
And this is my point -- I can't help but think that the reason the rich and middle class find poverty so confounding is that they have that Hollywood version of poor people in mind: easygoing stoners and drunks with nice apartments and tons of free time, who have unlimited access to transportation and are held back only by an inability to make sound, long-term decisions. Why would you ever feel sorry for those people? Why would you ever help them? They should get off their buts and just go get a high-paying job writing greeting cards.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author. His long-awaited new novel Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic stuff like that. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
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