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Don’t buy your father a Cadillac: Money lessons from TV’s ‘Seinfeld’

Brady Porche

Jerry Seinfeld’s famous “show about nothing” can teach us a few things about managing our money.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the series’ controversial finale – an epic two-parter that saw its four main characters hauled off to jail for not assisting a mugging victim. (Instead, they stood by and filmed the robbery with a camcorder, which would likely pass for acceptable behavior in the smartphone era.)

For a show that claimed to be about nothing, there was often a lot going on in the on-screen lives of Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes, George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer – the career and dating misadventures, the convoluted lies, the hare-brained schemes and the endless chatter about unwritten, often silly social rules.

But the show wasn’t all lewd self-control contests and bizarre encounters with colorful characters like the Soup Nazi, the Close Talker and Man Hands. Despite the show’s “no hugging, no learning” mantra, you can pick up valuable personal finance insights just by watching a few episodes.

Lesson 1: Discussing your income with friends can make things weird

In the season 7 two-part episode “The Cadillac,” Jerry scores a big paycheck from a standup comedy gig. Unwisely, he fills his friends in on the financial windfall.

Jerry’s former flame Elaine suddenly re-discovers her romantic feelings for him, while Kramer’s reaction is a mix of awe and horror. “I don’t think I can talk to you anymore. I feel inferior,” Kramer exclaims after glancing at Jerry’s check.

These kinds of social consequences are why most of us don’t reveal our incomes to friends and family members. If you make too much, someone might get uncomfortable or make a shallow attempt to curry favor with you.

If you don’t make enough, they may pity you or decide you’re inferior to them. Best to just preserve the mystery, unless you’re feeling generous and you want to buy someone a nice gift.

However, you should steer clear of buying your father a fancy new car, a painful lesson Jerry and his fictional folks learned at the end of this episode.


Lesson 2: Never reveal your PIN unless someone’s life depends on it

In another season 7 episode, George is stubbornly protective of his ATM code, refusing to share it even with his fiancée Susan. His mettle is tested throughout the show, though Kramer eventually deduces that the PIN is “Bosco” because George is a “portly fellow” who can’t resist a sweet chocolate drink.

George is forced to relent when a man stuck in the ATM lobby of a burning building must have his card and code in order to escape. But in typical Seinfeldian fashion, the good deed doesn’t go unpunished – George is later accused of finishing off the gravely ill mother of Elaine’s boss J. Peterman just by saying “Bosco” to her.

Most data security and identity theft experts would likely applaud George’s secrecy. Couples’ counselors, not so much.


Lesson 3: Read the fine print before jumping at a rewards bonanza

Season 4’s “The Airport” finds George and Kramer flitting back and forth between New York City’s two major airports trying to pick Jerry and Elaine up from a flight that keeps getting rerouted.

Kramer is also on a mission to hunt down a passenger who was once his roommate and still owes him $240. George allows Kramer to use his credit card (not a good idea, BTW) to buy tickets to get on a plane with the indebted ex-roomie, hoping to score frequent flyer miles and then return the tickets.

But the famously frugal George soon learns that the seats are non-refundable, much to his dismay. Meanwhile, Kramer does nothing more than scare the daylights out of his supposed former roommate (it’s not even clear that it’s the same guy) and immediately gets booted from the plane.


Lesson 4: Get on TV, and you’ll make ‘Ted Danson’ money

Perhaps the biggest financial lesson of Seinfeld is this: create a megahit TV series that becomes a cultural landmark, and you’ll be set for life.

The series’ namesake’s current show involves him driving around in luxury cars and sipping coffee with other celebrities, occasionally musing about how great it is to be rich and famous.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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