Money lessons from The Simpsons

Bart Simpson with credit card.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: And finally on the show today, a 20th birthday shout out to one of the country's favorite financial disaster zones...

"The Simpsons" intro music

This weekend the Fox animated series ends its year-long celebration of two decades on the air. So we thought, why not check-in on their economic well being and money management skills? Or more accurately, their non-money management skills.

I mean, listen to some of the things they've done: Homer got illegal cable. Bart needed money, so he sold his soul to Milhouse for five bucks. Homer spent Bart's acting money, which was supposed to go into the college fund -- wait Bart has a college fund? Anyway, Lisa racked up a $1,200 bill on iTunes. Homer got in trouble with the IRS for claiming he had nine kids. On a positive note though, Marge bought a Chanel suit at a local discount store. Yay Marge! Well, here with us to talk about personal finance in Springfield is Chris Turner. He's the author of "Planet Simpson." Welcome to the show.

Chris Turner: Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: So, we got a glimpse of things to come from the very first episode of this show, right?

Turner: Yeah. Well I think, it's been pretty consistent all the way through. The Simpson family, Homer in particular, have never been careful money managers. In fact, Homer himself has never seen a get-rich-quick scheme he didn't try and back.

Vigeland: Well, let's talk about that first episode. The family spends all the Christmas money to get rid of Bart's tattoo -- didn't know he had a tattoo. So Homer gets a second job as a Santa, so they can buy some gifts. Then, he gets his first paycheck. Let's play a clip.

Homer Simpson: Ah son, one day you're going to know the satisfaction of payday, receiving a big fat check for a job well done.

Cashier: Simpson, Homer? Here you go.

Homer: Son, let's go cash this baby and get presents for... AH!! Thirteen bucks?! Hey, wait a minute...

Cashier: That's right, $120 gross...

Homer: Yeah...

Cashier: Less unemployment insurance...

Homer: But...

Cashier: Less Santa training...

HOMER: Santa training?

Cashier: Less costume purchase...

Homer: Wait a minute...

Cashier: Less beard rental...

Homer: But...

Cashier: Less Christmas club.

Homer: But...

Cashier: See you next year.

Vigeland: Of course, he ultimately blew what little money he did have at the racetrack and voila! The Simpsons were born, right?

Turner: That's right. In fact, betting on what became the family's dog, Santa's Little Helper, I believe that's where the money went.

Vigeland: That's just sad. Now Homer works at a nuclear power plant, as everybody knows, and Marge is a stay-at-home mom. What are their finances like?

Turner: Well, it's kind of a curious thing and sort of unique to the Simpsons' universe. Homer seems to be one of those rare, more or less, working class guys, who's still making enough money to support the whole family. And although they don't live particularly extravagantly -- you know, they've got an old rundown car, TV's still got rabbit ears on it and it took them a long time to get a computer in the house -- but they do actually seem to manage, more than anything, seem to always have enough money on hand for Homer to basically eat and drink and otherwise consume as much as he possibly can and want to do.

So they're kind of a mix there. Perhaps, without actually stating it, they were part of the whole 90s and early 21st century credit bubble.

Vigeland: Yeah, sometimes it does seem to become almost absurdly close to reality. I remember the episode where Homer starts lusting after all the things his neighbor, Ned Flanders, has, like a satellite dish. So he tries to one-up him and go buy an RV.

Siren ringing

Homer: Is that good siren? Am I approved?

Cowboy Bob: You ever known a siren to be good?

Siren turned off

Cowboy Bob: No, Mr. Simpson, it's not. It's a bad siren. That's the computer in case I went blind, telling me, "Sell the vehicle to this fella and you're out of business."

Vigeland: Chris, maybe the only thing that's not real is that he didn't get the RV. At least not until later in the episode, right?

Turner: That's a fairly old episode and maybe it was before that really easy credit started flowing through the system, because certainly, yeah, he would've got that loan three or four years ago, effortlessly.

Vigeland: Right. You know, we laugh at the Simpsons, but really, they're just us on steroids, aren't they?

Turner: Well yeah, that's really always been the show's strength, and I think the reason why it's lasted and had the kind of resonance it had is because it is this sort of funhouse mirror reflection of what is going on. And if you look at a lot of the kind of excesses and pitfalls of the last 20 years, you'll see them in Homer Simpsons overconsumption, in his lack of planning for a rainy day, in his following of his desires to the detriment of those around him and so on and so forth.

Vigeland: Well, as the show has tracked what's happened in the country economically, over the last couple of decades, it certainly has done that over the last year. And one of my favorite recent episodes is where they realize they are in big trouble with their mortgage.

Mortgage broker: Let's see here... Balloon payment, 37 percent interest, compounded every minute, not understand the contract fee... Here's your new monthly payment.

Homer gasps

Marge Simpson: The number's so big it has a comma!

Mortgage broker: Oh wait, I left out a zero.

Homer: Listen you, when you gave me that money, you said I wouldn't have to repay it till the future. This isn't the future! It's the lousy, stinkin' now!

Vigeland: I wonder if perhaps one of the great things about the Simpsons is that they can make us feel like, well, if they did it, maybe it's not so bad we all did it too.

Turner: You know, that's always been one of the unique qualities of the show is that as bumbling and irresponsible and in a lot of ways, reprehensible as Homer Simpson can be, he still ultimately is a lovable old oaf and does in fact, give us some comfort in our own excesses -- maybe because they're at least a little bit less excessive than Homer's.

Vigeland: So there's at least one non-fan I remember, from the early 90s when the show first started, and that was the first President Bush, George H.W., who basically told the country that they should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons. Which financial model would you follow?

Turner: Well, I mean, if you look at the Simpsons' family track record and even more than that, the show's track record, it's probably been a more successful economic model than some of the ones that we tried back in the 80s and early 90s. And as Bart sort of said at the outset of that little controversy with George Bush Sr., he sort of said, we're exactly like the Waltons, we're waiting for the Depression end too. And as it turns out, the Simpsons outlasted that recession and enjoyed the boom, whereas President Bush was sent packing in that election. So I guess really the Simpsons themselves provide the more robust economic model.

Vigeland: And they'll certainly be receiving residuals for years to come.

Turner: Definitely. It's definite a cash cow.

Vigeland: Chris Turner is the author of the book "Planet Simpson." Send us your favorite money lessons from "The Simpsons." Go to our Web site; it's Marketplace.org. And click on Marketplace Money.

Chris, thanks so much. It's been fun.

Turner: My pleasure.

Vigeland: As is our want here at Marketplace Money, we'd like to get personal and share some advice with America's favorite yellow, four-fingered family: Get a financial advisor. Or at least, you know, give us a call. Because we know what you've been doing with those residuals. You told the world, back in May of 2000, when you agreed to sit down for VH1's "Behind the Laughter."

Narrator of "Behind the Laughter": With Simpson merchandise selling like crazy, and Simpsons' gin wetting whistles worldwide, the money was pouring in.

Sounds of the Simpsons squealing and reveling in cash

Marge: We were using $50 bills are toilet paper and toilet paper as dog toilet paper!

Vigeland: D'oh!

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