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The Biggest Hurdle to Living Debt Free

by Shawanda Greene

cosmopolitan cocktail by dion gillard

Photo by Dion Gillard

Living debt free isn’t easy. Well, at least not in the United States.

Our culture of entitlement makes it hard to resist collecting things we can’t afford.

You can point to several culprits that encourage Americans to overspend: the consumer based economy, the wide availability of credit, or the collective lack of discipline to properly manage our money.

Today I just wanna keep it simple.

So, who or what do I think is to blame for the I-deserve-it attitude that so many of us fall victim to? Television.

Think about your favorite television shows. Now consider whether the characters, based on their profession, can realistically afford their lifestyle.

I know it’s not real, but the average American watches FIVE hours of TV per day.You can’t ignore the influence it has on our lives.

One of my favorite shows, of all times, was the HBO original series, Sex and the City.

As a young, single career woman, I strongly identified with Carrie Bradshaw. I understood her desires, her quirks, her frustrations. She totally got me. And since I was miserable living in family oriented Orlando, Florida, I desperately wanted a change.

At one point in my early twenties, I was obsessed with moving to New York City and enjoying an incredible life similar to that of Carrie Bradshaw.

The fact that I ended up relocating to the Washington, D.C metro area is beside the point. Try to stay focused.

After talking to a few New York City based headhunters about job prospects and checking out apartments on Craigslist, I realized something. HBO lied. Carrie didn’t get me at all. Like her creator, she was a liar too.

I’d shamefully bought into the fantasy that you can work from home 5 hours a week as a columnist of a local New York City newspaper and bring in enough cash to pay for a Brownstone apartment on a tree lined street of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

I thought you could buy $400 shoes, eat out almost every single day, and not have to worry about getting molested on a packed New York City subway during rush hour.

If you so desired, you could smoke a pack or two of $11 cigarettes per day and enjoy the same lifestyle as an art dealer (Charlotte), a partner in a law firm (Miranda), a PR executive (Samantha) and a talent agent (Stanford).

Yes. You can afford everything the most expensive city in America has to offer that’s generally reserved for the upper echelons of society.

No. You don’t have to use public transit. You don’t need to cook or buy your shoes from PayLess. Forget about living with a roommate in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Your place is in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods on the island of Manhattan.

HBO sold it. We bought it.

The realization that it was all a big, fat, filthy lie was a little heartbreaking. I expect shampoo and conditioner manufacturers to exaggerate the benefits of their products. But this…It was almost too much.

When I picked up the entire season of Sex and the City from Target, I thought I was buying entertainment. What I really bought was a dream – a way to escape my everyday life. No doubt countless other single and fabulous (?) women bought this dream too.

It’s all in good fun until you don’t wake up. Media companies are such geniuses at selling a ficticious life, we waltz right into a restaurant or a shoe store or a nail salon half asleep. We don’t wake up to the reality that we can’t afford the life we’re living. And so, we spend unconsciously. We go into debt.

I mean, after all, other “people” just like us can have these things. Why can’t we?

What do you think? 

Does television shape your views about what’s affordable?

Did you enjoy this article?
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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Independence March 16, 2012 at 8:42 AM

I think it is OK. Nothing wrong about it.

What is the point to save the money? What a coincidence! S&P 500 ended the year of 2011 within 0.01% of where it was at the beginning of the year. So somebody was risking all the year for 0.01%….

There is only one life. Why not borrow money and enjoy it?

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Shawanda March 16, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Funny you should mention because I just read on Retire by 40 that "The SP500 is up about 11% and the Dow Jones is up about 8%." I'm a fan of making enough money to enjoy the life you want. If I borrow money, I feel compelled to repay it. It stresses me out and the interest costs me money.

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Marina K. Villatoro March 16, 2012 at 11:32 AM

5 hours! That's obscene!!! When do they spend time with their families, since I'm sure 2 more of thier time is spent on the internet.
I never watch tv, i never know what's going on, and miss out on all the eye candy of things Im told I must have!

which helps keep me away from consumerism.

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Shawanda March 16, 2012 at 1:18 PM

Yes, five hours. I knew it was a lot, but I was surprised when I looked it up. I don't know how we find time to update our status on Facebook.

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In Budgets We Trust March 16, 2012 at 11:39 AM

I haven't owned cable in several years so it's difficult for me to even relate to a TV show like this. (I stream The Walking Dead every Sunday, but I just can't identify with the zombie apocalypse.)

Whenever I catch a snippet of Gossip Girl in the gym or at a friends' place, I find myself envying all the fashions and lifestyles on the show. It's the next Sex and the City, right? Cable would be so dangerous to my budgeting skills!

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Shawanda March 16, 2012 at 1:21 PM

I tried to watch Gossip Girl. I couldn't get into it. It was too unrealistic. I think the characters are supposed to be privileged so maybe they can afford their lifestyle, but I could identify more with going out to eat, shopping, and talking to my friends about the intimate, and graphic, details of my dysfunctional relationships. :)

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sjm March 16, 2012 at 12:19 PM

I am an obsessive SATC fan, but fortunately the worst it ever made me succumb to is buying a fashion magazine!

Honestly, I'd have to say that my saving grace is being a plus-sized woman– Prada and Gucci would never be a reality for me because it would never fit! (And I don't have the purse-bug, so no worries there).

I think my link to hte show is the dramatic and oh-so indulgent "relationship drama"… fun to relive without having to live it!

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Shawanda March 16, 2012 at 1:22 PM

I know what you mean. One time I had to skip the episode when Miranda and Steve broke up. I couldn't "relive" that, even if only through the eyes of a fictional character.

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karunesh March 16, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Being Debt Free is a personal choice. The day you firmly decide"I would overcome my debt and start working on it slowly – one step at a time", from that day you have set yourself on right path.

to become debt free your personality should change. your attitude should change. your thinking should change

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Shawanda March 16, 2012 at 1:25 PM

You're right. In order for me to get out of debt I had to change my attitude. I started to become more grateful for what I already had. Contentment kept me from buying more stuff.

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YFS March 16, 2012 at 2:59 PM

I don't think T.V shapes our views on what's affordable. Any and everyone watch sex and the city should have know that it was no way in hell the Carrie could afford all that stuff as a writer. Even if she made 6 figures she couldn't afford her lifestyle. My wife loves that show and has every single last season and can probably quote the episodes word for word. Me being the finance person in the house, would force convoersations with her about the show. She being a fan, says herself. "Carrie is either being supplemented by BIG or In debut up to her eyeballs, but, I love the show. If the show was about real life and things that happen in the real world it would be boring. Nobody wants to watch a show about a broke ass writer in NYC"

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Shawanda March 17, 2012 at 5:44 PM

I think TV definitely has an influence on the stuff that I want even if I can't afford it. I won't go into debt…anymore, but there are so many shiny, new things. There was a time when I thought all that crap would make me happy. Well, sexy shoes make me happy and going out to eat makes me happy. New York City on a warm summer night also makes me happy. Ah, fudge. I gotta make more money.

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Thrifty Writer March 16, 2012 at 5:30 PM

One of the reasons that I DIDN'T like the show was the fact that I commuted to NYC and had friends who lived there. I knew the show was a lie about how easy it is to have a fabulous life in NYC (Friends was another such show that I didn't like either) and I could not identify with women who worshiped $500 shoes, stayed out at expensive clubs until 4 a.m. on a weeknight without having to worry about being at a job the next day and went out to brunch together every Sunday. I guess there are some shows you watch because you identify with them, and some shows you watch to escape reality, and SATC didn't satisfy either of these. I haven't watched the show Two Broke Girls, but apparently, there are folks interested in seeing less-than-wealthy folks on TV.

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Shawanda March 17, 2012 at 5:46 PM

I haven't heard of Two Broke Girls. I'm not sure I'd identify with them. If I do end up watching the show, they'd better be living like they're broke. I don't want to see any overly made up faces or expensive hair weaves.

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Emily March 16, 2012 at 10:42 PM

Hmm, maybe this is why I like The Office so much? The characters live in a regular kind of place and while we don't see into their personal lives very far, there are a few characters who we know are struggling to afford their lifestyles (Michael, Jim and Pam) and one very entrepreneurial character (Dwight). I never bought into SATC or Friends being realistic pictures of life in NYC.

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Shawanda March 17, 2012 at 5:48 PM

I'm a fan of The Office as well. I think the show is hilarious, but I can't say I can relate to the characters. If I had to choose who I identified with the most, it'd be Oscar. Is that weird?

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Holly March 17, 2012 at 8:03 AM

It's the Jones' that get us in trouble. They work with us, they are our neighbors, friends and relatives. We want what they APPEAR to have even if they are drowning in debt to get it.

While I don't have the hottest car or eat at restaurants each night, I'm totally debt free and heading to China for vacation in the near future. Our retirement account is on target for our age. Now, tell me again how important $400 shoes are?

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Shawanda March 17, 2012 at 5:52 PM

I'm jealous. I need a vacation.

The thing about the Joneses is that sometimes they can afford their lifestyle. We're just too lazy to make the sacrifices they made to get where they are. People wanna take shortcuts to catch up with the Joneses. They'll never be able to keep up because they don't have the equipment (money) to compete.

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YFS March 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM

Couldn't say it better myself. Funny because I'm a expensive shoe, go out all the time, have fun type of person. But yet we still max out both 401k's, Max out both ROTH IRA (we have to do a conversion) and buy 2-3 rental properties. I think you have to have balance and when you have a certain level of income coming in… you start looking like the Jonses to some.

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addvodka March 17, 2012 at 11:53 AM

This is a really interesting post. I guess TV does kind of get to me, but it's mainly the fashion (in shows like PLL, Gossip Girl, etc). I have never coveted lifestyles like Carrie's or anything, but the clothes.. I always want to go shopping after I watch shows like that.

I watch about 1 hour of TV a day (if that) usually about 5 days a week. That might change, since my boyfriend is getting cable hooked up today..ahh!

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Shawanda March 17, 2012 at 5:56 PM

I loved the shoes on SATC. If I'm in good shape, all I need is a tank top, some leggings, a fabulous pair of shoes, and I feel and look like a million bucks (in my humble opinion).

I think I covet the experiences affluent people are able to enjoy. For instance, I'd love to spend a few nights on a yacht. I actually don't think it's that difficult to have that. People rent out yachts on Airbnb.

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Taline March 18, 2012 at 10:19 PM

This post stated what I have always said about that show! It was a main reason I stopped watching it. I could no longer relate to it because it was not real. The 5 hours of T.V. is outrageous but unfortunately believable and I think it is a major contributing factor to the new obesity rise.

Since my husband and I have a 15 month old, we seldom watch T.V., and I cannot really say that I miss it all too much.

The sad fact is that most realty shows are far from real and are scripted, however, they make for good entertainment. I cannot belive many people buy into it thought.

Great post!

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Thanks! That 5 hours of TV stat surprised me. If you asked, "How do you plan to make more money this year?" I wonder how many Americans would reply with, "I don't – I'm too busy."

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My University Money March 19, 2012 at 9:57 PM

Maybe that is why SATC did so well – It was selling a dream? It seems that the people that get rich or are successful these days are the ones that sell the whole dream idea. I know I gobble up that crap thinking that if I just read one more book on the 8 (or is it 6, 12, 14?) strategies/steps/levels/rules of success I will finally get over that hurdle. I wonder if the actresses on the show will even be able to afford the lifestyle they presented when they are no longer sex symbols in a few years!

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:34 PM

Ah, the joys of information overload. I'm a chronic sufferer. I've just recently started carving out specific time slots to do what I've already learned to do 10 times over.

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Andrew March 21, 2012 at 7:36 AM

Selling the sizzle always works … The two-dollar steak under the sizzle is just a cheaper cut, all gristle and meat glue. The make-money-online blogs are also that, selling the sizzley dream of a 4hour work week, without all the hard work.

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:37 PM

The 4-Hour Workweek is one of my favorite books. And I actually believe a 4-hour work week is possible AFTER you've spent many a 70 to 80 hour work week getting your business(es) to a point where you don't have to do anything with them. By that time, you've probably sold the business(es) and are living off the proceeds.

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Tonya March 21, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Not going to lie, i totally loved that show!! But you are SO right! Every woman in America was living vicariously through those characters. And you know what else was a lie? How often men just on the street asked them out. If this really happens in NY I'm totally moving there, because trying to get a date in LA is f'ing impossible! But still…loved the show. :)

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:42 PM

I thought it was just me. It's not often I even encounter a man that's of the appropriate age, social status, marital status, etc. On SATC, there were datable men around every corner.

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mcoville March 22, 2012 at 1:16 PM

Wonderful article and very relevant to what is destroying America today. MY wife and I are working hard to become debt free and, like you notice, all of the commercialism out there makes it hard to resist temptation. It takes team work on our part to avoid giving in all the time.

I'll let you on a little secret. We found an old tradition that has helped us the most. It is something our grandparents used to do and our parents rarely did so we never do. The secret to being debt free is this…. tell yourself NO!

When you want a new phone with all the bells and whistles, even though your current one works.. say NO!
When you see a pair of shoes you love and the ones on your feet have no wholes… say NO!
When your stomach is empty and you see a restaurant, even though you have food in the fridge at home… say NO!

Thank you for opening up this topic, God bless.

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:44 PM

Great point! You know what else I love about the word "no," saying it to other people. It's crazy how many financially responsible people are financially destroyed because they continually enable deadbeat family members and friends.

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Thrifty Writer March 26, 2012 at 5:41 PM

Just came across this – thought you might be interested:

The Five Most Unrealistic Apartments On TV Or In Movies http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/2012/03/

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Shawanda March 27, 2012 at 3:52 PM

Thanks for sharing. I ALWAYS thought the Friends apartment was just stupid.

With SATC, the writers tried to use rent control to explain how Carrie could pay seven hundred and something dollars a month in rent for an Upper East Side apartment. The problem with that, according to Wikipedia is, "To qualify for rent control, a tenant must have been living continuously in an apartment since July 1, 1971." That means Carrie would've had to move in that apartment before or while she was in grade school.

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GoWest December 12, 2012 at 3:38 PM

Great article. Reminds me of the film ‘The Johnsons’ i believe its called, with David Duchovny. Its basically about this family that are planted in a neighbourhood to show off all these products that the marketing companies want exposed to manipulate and influence potential buyers. TV is most certainly a powerful marketing medium.
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