It’s hard to find a show that has had a greater cultural impact on American life than the 90s television sitcom Friends. From “The Rachel” haircut, to the Holiday Armadillo, “Smelly Cat”, and even the “I’ll Be There for You” theme song, Friends is a show that continues to feel relevant and relatable – even though it’s been more than a decade since the finale aired in May 2004!
While Friends was and continues to be one of my favorite shows, something I can always turn on when I don’t know what else to watch, I couldn’t help but notice just how epic the show could have been if they would have further explored personal finance topics and realistically shared how a group of 20-somethings in New York City live, work, and play.
For example, the pilot begins with a financial predicament. Rachel Green is a runaway bride desperately looking for her high school bestie Monica Gellar because she doesn’t want to marry Dr. Barry Farber, D.D.S., after all. Only problem? Rachel has been financially dependent on other people her whole life, starting with her father, and now with her fiancé. She’s desperate to find a loyal friend like Monica, who she hopes will help her get back on her financial feet, even though Monica wasn’t invited to the wedding.
Monica ends up letting Rachel move into her apartment and lets her borrow some clothes so Rachel can get out of the wedding dress she ran away in. It’s an incredibly kind gesture and as avid fans know, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship, but it’s also not realistic at all. There is no discussion of how long Rachel can stay with Monica or if she would be financially responsible for any expenses.
As kind as I would like to believe I am, I can’t imagine sitting at a coffee shop one minute and the next helping an estranged friend move into my apartment with no idea of how they would afford rent, utilities, food, or how long they would be staying, etc.
In other words, Monica is financially enabling Rachel’s unhealthy financial habits right from the get-go. If this was the kind of financial lesson in the pilot, where else did Friends drop the ball when it comes to money?
8 Financial Red Flags from ‘Friends’
The One Where Shopping Makes You Feel Better
Rachel Green doesn’t have a job, money, or any experience budgeting or managing her money when she moves in with Monica after leaving her fiancé at the altar. So, while Monica believes she’s doing her friend a favor by not letting her pay for any expenses immediately, Rachel doesn’t fully understand what it takes to stay on a budget – especially after a financial hardship or being financially cut off.
Instead of spending the day looking for work or helping around the house, Rachel decides to take herself shopping because she believes she deserves a pick-me-up after canceling her wedding. Only problem? Rachel’s shopping spree was paid for using her father’s credit cards. In other words, she’s still financially dependent on someone else.
Monica and the gang offer a solution to Rachel: cut up your credit cards completely so you can’t be tempted to rely on your parents’ money or plastic money to make ends meet. As Monica tells Rachel, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks – you’re going to love it!”
This is really good advice for those struggling with credit card debt because sometimes it takes something dramatic like not being able to use our credit cards, to stop a habit we formed. Emotional spending, shopping therapy, whatever you want to call it may make you feel better temporarily, but once the dopamine wears off and your credit card debt continues to climb, it’s easy to see how one could get stuck in a cycle of debt.
If you find yourself in a similar situation: Contact a nonprofit credit counseling service to discover your options for paying off your debt. You may find a lower interest rate offered through a debt management program does the trick.
The One with The “Rent-Controlled” Apartment
New York City, where Friends takes place, is infamous for its high-rent and ridiculously tiny apartments. I’ve never lived in New York, but the idea that an apartment like the one where Monica and Rachel lived was only $200 a month was ABSURD to pretty much everyone.
In fact, the cost of Monica and Rachel’s apartment became a focal point for many fans in the early 2000s as many noted that a barista and a chef would not likely be able to afford such a spacious NYC apartment on their own without either being heirs, trustees, or receiving financial assistance. The show’s writers tried to address the rent issue in one sentence in one episode by sharing that Monica had inherited the rent-controlled apartment from her late Grandmother.
However, this was not a good enough answer for those in the personal finance world, who rightfully pointed out that:
- $200 is still comically low, even for a rent-controlled apartment.
- Monica would have had to pay legal counsel to transfer the rent-controlled apartment to her name, which would have been expensive. It’s unlikely a 20-something chef would be able to afford the legal fees outright.
Even if the apartment was somehow magically $200, Monica was willing to gamble the apartment in a bet with Chandler and Joey, and she lost.
Lesson learned? If you do end up with an incredibly affordable rental or mortgage payment, don’t bet it in a game of who knows who best! Realize you have a unicorn and keep those extra savings flowing into your 401k or other retirement or rainy-day funds.
The One Where Everyone is a Secret Influencer
Pretty much every character on Friends has a job. We know that Monica is a chef, Rachel is a waitress turned fashion buyer, Ross is a paleontologist, Joey is an actor, Phoebe is a freelance massage therapist/coffee lounge singer, and Chandler is a transponster data processor supervisor.
While we do see every character in action at work throughout the series, the fact is most of the show is based on this group of Friends not working. We see them constantly at the coffee shop, Central Perk, going out to dinners, shopping, movies, and even traveling to London and Las Vegas – constantly spending money. But we hardly ever see the group get concerned about the cost of their lavish lifestyles. Ross even had a pet monkey.
While it’s possible to become a millionaire even by working a modest-paying job, pretty much every character on the show lived a lavish lifestyle – regardless of what was going on with their career.
The problem is that most 20-somethings struggle with money, as do those in their 30s and 40s. The fact that their lifestyle never really presented any financial problems was such a missed opportunity, especially since there is never any discussion about student loans, credit scores, establishing a credit history, saving for retirement, life insurance, or even maternity leave.
The One Where Ross Talks About Child Support
The average paleontologist in the U.S. earns $91,000 annually in 2021.
It’s possible that Ross was able to afford his bachelor pad on his paleontologist professor salary. It’s also possible he never had to take out any student loans as we learn quickly that his parents would rather invest financially in Ross’s future than his sister, Monica. But the show never addresses one expense that I don’t know how Ross would have been able to avoid: child support.
At the beginning of the series, we learn that Ross was married to Carole, but they later divorce after Carole accepts and admits to Ross that she’s a lesbian and is in love with a woman called Susan. Ross is heartbroken his marriage is ending, but the tragedy of his marriage ending gets kind of clouded when Carole announces she’s pregnant with Ross’s baby, who we later meet as Ben.
On the show, we see Ben grow up into a little boy. And we also see Ross have a baby with Rachel at the end of the series. While the writers led fans to believe that Ross and Rachel ended up together and raised their daughter Emma as a family unit, there is never any discussion about the co-parenting costs or child support Ross pays for Ben, nor is there any discussion about college savings plans for any child.
This is clearly not realistic as most co-parents don’t get to spend time with their children and avoid child support. It was also a missed opportunity to talk about the benefits of saving for your child’s future sooner than later.
The One Where Joey is Rich for a Day
For most of the series, Joey is an out-of-work actor who is financially dependent on his roommate Chandler. So, when he lands his breakthrough role on “Days of Our Lives” as Dr. Drake Ramoray, Joey mistakenly believes his “out of work” days are far behind him. Joey’s ego gets inflated when his paycheck dramatically increases, and suddenly his apartment with Chandler was no longer good enough for the soap opera star.
Joey believes that because he’s a star he needed to upgrade his lifestyle. This also ends up hurting Chandler who believed that his BFF Joey would pay him back for all of the acting classes and lessons Joey said he needed in order to fulfill his dreams of becoming a star.
There’s no other way to put it than Joey fell prey to lifestyle inflation. With his newer, bigger paycheck, Joey believed he SHOULD live in a more expensive apartment, complete with an indoor rain wall, a phone in the bathroom, a pinball machine, and a few porcelain statues. But he wasn’t necessarily concerned about settling his financial debts before he upgraded his life.
Joey’s new lifestyle was problematic from the start, but his financial stress returns when Joey’s character is suddenly killed off the show after he told “Soap Opera Digest” in an exclusive interview that he wrote his own lines for the show. In short, Joey pissed off the show’s writers, who promptly wrote him out of the show. No more big paychecks.
Instead of being open and honest with his friends, specifically Chandler, Joey barricades himself in his lavish apartment. Instead of being surrounded by his friends, he’s surrounded by a bunch of past-due and collection notices. His friends only learn of his acting job coming to an end because they watched the episode where his character fell down an elevator shaft – the only one who could have saved Dr. Drake Ramoray was Dr. Drake Ramoray.
Still, somehow all of Joey’s friends decide to bail him out. There’s no discussion of whether this financial bailout is a loan, how the gang had so much cash on hand to just give to their friend, or how the money would be repaid. In fact, Joey complains to Ross that a collection agency is taking all his stuff and Ross agrees to buy one of Joey’s porcelain statues just to make his friend feel better.
The problem with this episode is that Joey has an attitude of “my friends will always bail me out” that never quite gets addressed. Before he moves into his lavish apartment, we learn that Chandler is the one who has basically been paying for Joey’s lifestyle. And after Joey moves back in with Chandler, everyone acts as if nothing happened.
I’d like to think this episode could have had an even more dramatic impact on American culture if one of the more popular phrases to come out of the show had been “It was a loan, not a grant” instead of “we were on a break!”
The One With the Delivery Fee
If you’ve ever moved personally or helped a friend or family member move, you know firsthand how difficult it can be to move items like furniture in and out of doorways, and up and down staircases.
Even if you haven’t seen THE episode where Ross is couch-shopping, you’ve likely at least seen the “pivot” memes from this episode. Here’s what was going on: Ross is redecorating his apartment. He goes to a furniture store and finds a couch that he loves so he buys it. When the salesperson informs Ross that the cost of delivery is about the same cost as the couch itself, Ross flips out. He refuses to pay the exorbitant delivery fee, arguing it’s only three blocks, and enlists Rachel and Chandler to help carry his new couch home and into his new apartment.
The problem is that Ross, Rachel, and Chandler don’t have the strength or tools to hoist the couch up the narrow stairway of Ross’s apartment building. So regardless of the number of times that Ross yells “pivot,” the three just can’t seem to get the couch up the stairs. In the end, the couch falls down the stairwell and ends up quite damaged.
Lesson learned: As frustrating as it may be to pay for the cost of delivery on furniture or to pay a plumber or an electrician to do what you maybe can’t or don’t know how to do, it’s usually worth paying the price. If you end up making the problem worse or damaging the object, like the new couch, you may find yourself paying more money, like Ross, and find you’re back at square one, shopping for a new couch.
The One Where Financial Boundaries Were Normalized
There’s one episode in which money issues seemed to be a big issue for every character on the show. In the episode, Monica is hired at a fancy new restaurant and is given five steaks and an eggplant as a welcome gift from a vendor but ends up losing her job over accepting the gift. In hindsight, Monica wishes she would have never accepted the food, noting it’s worth far less than her salary would have been.
It’s also the episode where it’s Ross’s birthday and he wants to go to dinner – someplace nice – and to a Hootie & the Blowfish concert. Chandler, wanting to be a good friend, decides to book a dinner reservation and buy concert tickets without talking to anyone else about their budget. Chandler’s not expecting his friends to take issue with the $62 payment because it’s “For Ross,” but Phoebe, Rachel, and Joey are all financially struggling.
While they are happy for their friends who earn higher incomes, the three lesser-earning friends share it’s hard for them to afford everything that their higher-income friends want to do. They point out that while the current celebration was Ross’s birthday, just a few days prior they were asked to chip in and pay for a dinner celebrating Monica’s new job as head chef.
Again, this episode feels like such a missed opportunity to discuss getting comfortable with setting financial boundaries. I think it’s fair to say most people, especially if they are trying to save money and cut back on expenses, would not be happy about paying $62 for a side salad or a cup of soup every time you went out because your friends who ordered lobster and steak wanted to split the tab.
It’s also such a let-down that the three lesser earning friends’ request to do more affordable things was met with financial shame. Instead of just understanding where their friends were coming from or appreciating that their friends wanted to improve their financial situation, Monica, Chandler, and Ross, basically tell Phoebe, Rachel, and Joey that they like to go out to fancy dinners because they work hard, and they want to celebrate special occasions at someplace “nice.”
The problem with this answer is that it essentially diminishes what Phoebe, Rachel, and Joey asked their friends to do, which was consider planning more affordable dinners or nights out and instead shames the three lesser-earning friends for not wanting to extravagantly celebrate promotions and birthdays.
The truth is you should never feel obligated to spend your money even when amongst friends.
The One Where Monica Befriends Her Identity Thief
Identity theft is increasingly an issue. Most of us have set-up alerts on our phones so that if our account or credit card is compromised, we have a chance of stopping the financial spending spree before the thief gets away with our money. But back when Friends aired, mobile notifications were not really a thing, which is why when Monica learns someone stole her credit card number it’s only after she receives her bill and doesn’t recognize several of the charges.
Usually, when someone discovers that someone has stolen their identity and racked up hundreds if not thousands of dollars in charges, they are really upset, but Monica? Not so much. Monica was jealous that the woman who was masquerading around town as her was doing things that Monica always wanted to do like take tap dance classes, so she went to the tap dance class and tried to befriend her own identity thief!
While we can’t fault the showrunners for not talking about the importance of signing up for text and/or email fraud alerts from your bank or financial institution, it again is such a missed opportunity to discuss the importance of monitoring and reviewing your credit card statements and always notifying the authorities of suspicious or illegal charges immediately.
I’ll Be There For You
While Friends the show may not have gotten everything right when it comes to personal finance, the show does do a great job of showing the ups and downs of life and the complexity of making a decision that has financial repercussions.
For example, when Monica learns that her parents spent her wedding money on a beach house because they thought she was never going to get married, Chandler tries to make his bride smile by finding alternative ways to pay for the wedding. Namely, he tells Monica he is willing to use the large savings he set on the wedding instead of buying a home. It’s such a touching moment when Monica realizes that spending Chandler’s life savings on one day is not worth it after all and she’s happy she found someone who is looking out for her financial future.
And there was that time when Rachel didn’t get on the plane and as a result gave up her super cool promotion working at a fashion house in Paris so she, Ross, and baby Emma could all be a family. Or the time Phoebe agreed to be her brother’s surrogate because it was a more financially affordable option for her brother and his wife.
As the theme song says:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke
Your love life’s DOA.
You’re still in bed at ten
And work began at eight
You’ve burned your breakfast
So far, things are going great
Your mother warned you there’d be days like these
But she didn’t tell you when the world has brought
You down to your knees that
I’ll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I’ll be there for you
(Like I’ve been there before)
I’ll be there for you
(‘Cause you’re there for me too)