You know and I know that reality TV owes a lot of its appeal to lies. After all, real reality bites.
So it came as no surprise that when a friend of mine was selected to audition for a reality TV series on money makeovers, much of the riveting background story she was asked to portray was exaggerated, if not completely fabricated.
Here's the show's premise: An ordinary person of ordinary means (and above-average attractiveness) is faced with a compelling money predicament that a money expert and supportive friends help her overcome in 22 minutes of airtime.
In reality, my friend -- we'll call her "Carrie" -- is pretty average. She has a decent-paying job, health insurance, an aloof cat. She regularly contributes to her retirement savings and owns her car outright. She's got a few student loans that are almost paid off; and while there's a balance on her credit card, it is at a low interest rate.
Like most of us, Carrie likes shoes. (OK, if it's not shoes that get your juices flowing, substitute the vice of your choice.) And while her shoe shopping has not led to fiscal Armageddon, it is a symptom of a larger issue that, again, most of us can cop to: everyday spending derailing a larger money goal.
So after some discussion with the show's producers, the story became: Carrie's profligate spending on accessories, entertainment, and the freewheeling single life was holding her back from buying furnishings befitting a 30-something working gal.
Getting into character
To prep Carrie for her role, the producers suggested that she channel Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw -- a woman with an heiress' wardrobe on a writer's salary -- portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker on the HBO series. Getting into character required a quick change of clothes, some accessorizing, lipstick, and, of course, heels.
Here's where I came in. My role was the "cajoling friend," which I played with sarcastic aplomb. I chided her furnishings, revealing the broken pressboard TV cart she still had from her college days. I lifted the slipcover on the couch to reveal worn velour floral upholstery that would make even grandmothers cringe. I belittled her "stereo cabinet" -- book boxes draped with a white sheet. I squirmed on the torturous metal folding chairs that served as guest seating.
"This," I truthfully told the camera, "is the longest period of time I've ever spent in this apartment. I think you can see why."
Next it was time to talk money. Carrie sat down as the producers asked her to talk about her life -- what she does on weekends, how she eats out with friends, travels a lot, spoils her niece with gifts, and donates regularly to charity.
Before commercial break, we see Carrie's bewildered face as a voice off camera asks: "Where exactly does all of your money go?"
Since the real-life Carrie's responsible accounting methods (monthly dates with Quicken and double-checking receipts with her account statements) don't play well on TV, the producers looked for a more shocking portrayal of her budgeting.
This required 30 minutes of scrambling. Closets were flung open. Boxes of shoes (even the ones in the giveaway pile) were stacked in the corner of a bedroom. Clothes in storage were pulled out and strewn across the bed. Makeup and hair accessories were taken out of drawers and arranged on top of the dresser.
Parking tickets, bills, and the checkbook were fanned across the kitchen table. Junk food was moved to the forefront of the refrigerator. And anything that cost money was rearranged, properly lighted, and captured on B-roll to further punctuate Carrie's "money problems."
Then Carrie gave a tour of her apartment -- the Land of Mindless Purchases. "When did you buy that?" "Why are the tags still on it?" "How much did you pay for this?" "Are you serious?" The questions were brutal, but she answered with candor and good humor.
Getting into it, she offered some tasty morsels about fleeting hobbies and the exorbitant setup costs: Hundreds of dollars on craft supplies. Six hundred dollars for a new guitar. She admitted that she never leaves a music store without purchasing at least $25 in sheet music each time. Music stand, strings, CDs, magazines -- money was gushing everywhere. And she hadn't even gotten to last year's passing and pricey fancy: golf.
In truth, money reality bites. But it makes for great TV.
With the problem quite literally out in the open, it was time to talk about how Carrie would cut back her spending and raise money to buy what she really needed: an invitingly furnished living room that reflects her successful, cosmopolitan, post-college life.
She eyeballed stuff she could sell -- old books, clothes, CDs, clothes, those golf clubs. (I promised I would buy her guitar and sell it back to her when the film crew left.) She talked about side jobs -- such as teaching computer skills and setting up databases -- that could bring in extra dough. She admitted that with a little creativity and planning, she could have a vibrant yet less pricey social life.
We joked when the camera wasn't rolling about what a field day the producers would have at my place. I have clothes with price tags still attached. I could outfit a small village of size 8 women in fashionable footwear. I have a soft spot for fabric, yet only so many items to upholster and a finite number of windows to dress. Lamps are another weakness. And couches.
"Reality" meets reality
Despite the creative trickery, the audition proved quite revealing to our heroine and her pal. The steroidal account of Carrie's spending was a real-life wake-up call.
Despite the fiction created for the camera, taking complete strangers through an inventory of her belongings -- both the beloved ones and the mistakes -- served as a brisk slap on the wallet. Nothing stomps out the spending bug better than having your stuff scrutinized by strangers.
I have the opportunity every day to fess up to my money shortcomings and put them out there for public scrutiny. (Just click on that couch link a couple of paragraphs up.) Most people don't have a public forum for their blunders. But if they did, maybe we'd all be a little more careful with our money.
The reality show experience has certainly rubbed off on Carrie. The other day as we were eyeing a particularly affordable armoire, she commented that it cost only a little more than what she spends each week on entertainment.
Now, if we could just get a few of the spurned Bachelors to help us haul it to her apartment.
Dayana Yochim prefers crime dramas and Charlie Rose to reality TV. Thankfully, there's no Nielsen viewing box forcing her to publicly admit the truth. The Motley Fool is made up of TV fans writing for other TV fans.