Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How PBS Can Help You Stay Out of Debt

Do you sometimes feel like the only poor slob in the richest nation on Earth? Chances are you’re doing much better than you think.

Studies show that human beings do not judge what material possessions we should have on what we actually need. Instead we look to those around us, and compare what we have to what they have. If we’re part of the same social community, we expect to have just about the same amount of stuff. This wasn’t such a bad system in days gone by. People usually lived among a community of peers who had the same types of jobs, salaries and expectations.

These days, our “neighbors” are not the people down the street but the people who we welcome right into our houses via our TVs. Thanks to the magic box, we’re all hanging out with wealthy celebrities on their private islands. We’re comparing our wardrobes to Carrie’s on Sex and the City and our apartments to Shaquille O’Neal’s on MTV Cribs. Instead of keeping up with the Jones, we're keeping up with the Kardashians.

Day after day we are exposed to a world that is coated with high fashion and glamor. Even the cops and scientists working behind the scenes in crime labs appear to have been recently torn away from professional modeling gigs. Just like real life.

Few popular American television programs show working class characters. Researchers have analyzed the programs that do, and you will probably not be shocked to learn that they discovered such programs actually depict quite a good standard of living--higher than the characters could probably expect to have given their likely income levels.

The result, according to a survey conducted in the early 1990s, is that 85 percent of the U.S. public aspires to a lifestyle associated with those top fifth of the income ladder.

You do not have to be a financial genius to realize that most of us can never get there. But we try our hardest using our Platinum Rewards credit cards.

The worst part? When people feel stressed about their finances they are more apt to cut themselves off from real social interaction and watch more TV. There they see more rich and glamorous people, feel increasingly broke and ugly, and watch more TV and so on and so on.

So here is my suggestion. If you would like to live a well-balanced, debt free life, start watching British TV. Many British programs are available on channels like BBC America and PBS, and you can rent others or check them out from the library on DVD.

Where U.S. shows revel in the lives of the well-to-do, British shows are more likely to find drama in issues like unemployment and financial worries. The homes and furnishings tend to be modest. The actors are generally pleasant looking, but not impossibly beautiful.

(Romantic Leads, U.S. legal drama: L.A. Law)

(Romantic leads, U.K. legal drama: New Street Law)

And as an added bonus, the hour-long dramas created for the BBC air there commercial free, so you get almost a full hour of entertainment as opposed to the 44 minutes or so of a comparable U.S. show.

If you’re going to compare your life to the lives of fictional people, I say give yourself a fighting chance and choose people who have at least a fleeting resemblance to a lifestyle you could achieve. You’ll be entertained, more worldly and you’ll probably feel more attractive and richer without spending a dime.

Just don’t adopt the accent. You’ll sound like a twit.