If you were one of the 8.5 million viewers who sighed when the latest season of “Downton Abbey” came to an end, join the club – I’m a diehard fan. Blame it on my love for all things British and the amazing costumes – and, of course, the juicy storyline and gasp-inducing plot twists as well.
But while “Downton Abbey” might simply be seen as a bit of fun for a Sunday night, I’ve noticed a recurring theme that colors literally every part of the show, characters, and plot: money. After all, the entire premise of the show is to prove that between the “have” and the “have nots,” everyone has their own challenges. With this in mind, I started watching the show with renewed interest in the theme of money and financial security.
Note: This article contains spoilers to the show, “Downton Abbey.”
Financial Lessons From the Crawleys
What I found is that for all their money and opulence, the residents of Downton Abbey usually act as a cautionary tale, rather than a picture-perfect version of money management in the early 1900s. While it might not have been the main purpose of the writers, watching “Downton” can yield some interesting insight into financial do’s – and even more don’ts – in our modern day. So here is what Matthew, Mary, and the gang have taught me over the last four seasons.
1. Run Your Home Like a Business
When Matthew buys into Downton with the money he inherited, he asks Lord Grantham to take a look at the books. Lord Grantham happily hands them over, expecting a handshake and a pat on the back for a job well done. It’s only then that Matthew discovers that Downton has been grossly mismanaged for years, including reckless spending and poor investment decisions. He tells Grantham that he’d like to run Downton as a business – tracking expenditures, putting residents on a budget, and having management staff in place.
While you might not be the owner of a grand estate, running your home like a business makes sense. After all, you want your family to be successful, so creating a household budget, tracking expenses, allotting money for allowance, and frequently checking progress can help you stay on track. A monthly review of your budget and household can further keep you – and your family – away from reckless spending and going over-budget.
2. Involve Your Kids in Finance
After Matthew dies at the end of season three, it’s his heir, George, who suddenly becomes part-owner of Downton. Of course, since he’s a baby, the control reverts to Matthew’s wife Mary (and Lord Grantham’s daughter) as George’s guardian. At first, Lord Grantham balks at the idea: a woman helping run the estate? His own daughter, no less? However, as other family members voice their approval, he grudgingly agrees to let Mary get involved to major success. She suggests new business ventures and helps Downton get back on its feet after a devastating death.
While you might want to protect your kids from the boring day-to-day part of household finances, letting them get involved can help build their own money smarts. Whether it’s calling a family meeting to discuss the budget, or encouraging them to save a portion of their allowances, you can look at your kids as financial partners, rather than dependents. After all, someday they might be.
3. Prepare for Anything and Everything
“Downton” has seen the death of at least two main characters, along with surprise pregnancies, jail time, and even a cancer scare. Of course, it’s also a fictional drama, so you might take the plot line with a gigantic grain of salt.
But while watching the characters scramble after each plot twist, one thing is clear: It’s important to plan for all contingencies. Death, divorce, money lost, and money gained can all effectively change your way of life. Being prepared for dramatic or unexpected situations can mean a quicker recovery.
Here are some of the plans and documents you should have in place:
- A Legal Will/Living Trust. A will and/or a living trust allows you to specify beforehand who will control or receive your estate and assets. Without one, assets could be tied up in probate, resulting in a costly legal process and leaving you with essentially no say as to how your heirs are taken care of after your death.
- Emergency Savings. Aim for at last 10% each paycheck. You never know when a layoff, broken-down car, or medical bill could derail your finances. Emergency savings help remove some of the “what if” from life’s drama.
- Retirement Savings. Whether you choose a traditional 401k through your work, an IRA, or a Roth IRA, putting away money for retirement helps guarantee you a certain quality of life when you’re done working. You cannot rely on Social Security – or even old family money – to pay your way after retirement.
- An Emergency Plan In Case of Natural Disaster. Having a 72-hour kit, a three- to six-month food storage (including water), and emergency escape plan for your home all can help you and your family feel more prepared for emergencies.
- Health Insurance. Even though you might be able to afford regular checkups and the occasional medication, health insurance mitigates major catastrophes and the cost of ongoing medication.
- Life Insurance. Even if you can only afford a bare minimum plan to cover the costs of funeral and burial, it’s a start. You can also look at term policies and permanent options for larger amounts of life insurance that can help pay off mortgages, pay for lost wages, and help your family survive and thrive when you pass away.
Obviously, planning for the future can be confusing – and sometimes downright upsetting. Hiring the right financial planner can help simplify the process. Most planners have the capacity to help set up retirement accounts, plan a will, and even help you choose the right combination of life insurance to make sure you have a plan in place for just about any contingency. Having plans in place for emergencies can help give you peace of mind and comfort in knowing that you and your family will be taken care of in the event of a “plot twist.”
4. If It Seems Like a “Sure Thing,” It Probably Isn’t
In “Downton Abbey,” we’ve seen two characters in financial ruin because of investing in what was touted as a “sure thing”: Thomas lost his money in the black market after the war, and Lord Grantham sank the family’s fortune into a failing Canadian railway. Both were promised that it was a quick, easy way to make money – and both were completely disappointed.
Of course, unlike Thomas, Lord Grantham’s poor judgement didn’t just affect him individually, but put his family’s and his staff’s livelihoods at stake. Luckily, he was saved by Matthew’s kindness – but don’t expect the same storybook ending for yourself.
The financial lesson here? Getting rich quick doesn’t happen. If someone promises you a huge (and guaranteed) return on your investment, be wary. Real wealth is built slowly through smart investments and a diversification of funds, rather than sinking a large amount in just one venture. Research all of your investments carefully, and avoid those that make impossible (or unethical) promises.
What’s more, the same storyline teaches us a lot about diversification. It’s never a good idea to put all of your funds into one investment, no matter how “guaranteed” the results. Talk to a financial advisor and find the right combination of mutual funds, retirement investments, and stocks to grow your money with less risk. Even the most guaranteed investment can tank – just ask Lord Grantham.
5. Ignoring Bad Finances Won’t Make Them go Away
Lovable Lord Grantham is socially progressive, kind, and stalwart – but when it comes to finances, he can be a bit of a buffoon. He had to have known that for years the family and the estate was spending more than it should on opulent parties, staff wages, and clothes, and a lack of income from failing farms. He artfully ignored the problem until it compounded and threatened to ruin the entire family.
Just like ignoring bills won’t magically make them paid, knowing that your household is hemorrhaging money and hiding your head in the sand can lead to serious repercussions such as poor credit, accounts going to collections, and tons of debt. Making an “appointment” to look over your current financial state and talk to your partner is the best way to stop bad habits and make a turnaround.
Lord Grantham needed a swift kick from Matthew following a review of Downton’s books – you might need a dose of reality if you’re spending thoughtlessly too.
6. When Faced With Loss, Improve Your Skills
Poor Edith. For the first couple of seasons, she was almost as much of an antagonist as Thomas and O’Brien. As the middle sister between Mary and Sybil, she lacks the stolidness of the elder and the whimsy of the younger, often seeming pinched and cranky in the process.
But while she may be a bit snobby and fork-tongued, we all felt a pang of sympathy when she finally fell in love, seemingly secured herself a husband, and was subsequently left at the altar by her fiancé. She reacted like anyone would: by moping around and feeling generally sorry for herself until the Dowager Countess basically told her to stop feeling sorry for herself and find something else to do.
And she did: Edith quickly found work as a columnist for a London paper, much to the scandal of her proper family. It’s a lesson in continually honing skills and becoming marketable, even in the face of opposition. Whether it’s a pile of debt, a bad breakup, a job loss, or something else that has you down in the dumps, taking a course, learning something new, and improving yourself can slingshot you back in the game.
7. Keeping With Tradition Can Be Dangerous
Many of the Crawleys’ financial problems could be traced back to simply keeping with traditions. The balls, the parties, the clothing, and the lack of income – they were simply what was expected after years of always doing the same thing (and doing what other aristocratic families were doing) when none were particularly affordable for the struggling estate.
Sound familiar? It’s like a historical version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” The Crawleys put on expensive dinners and parties because tradition dictated it and others expected it. Of course, it contributed to gross financial mismanagement and the near-ruin of the family.
Remember that traditions should never dictate how you manage your money. For instance, your parents may have traditionally lived paycheck to paycheck, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.
What’s more, trying to keep up with friends, neighbors, and even family members makes poor financial sense. Unless you’ve seen their financial records and know exactly their salaries, debts, and net worth, you don’t know how they’re affording new cars, houses, and vacations. Stick with what you know: your own financial situation. Saving money and paying off debt means you’re the one blazing new trails.
8. Financial Compatibility Counts
Remember when it seemed like everything was finally coming together for Matthew and Mary? They were about to get married…but instead got in a huge fight about money.
Financial compatibility and vision definitely matters in a relationship. Matthew had received a massive inheritance from Lavinia, which could have solved all of Downton’s legal woes. Instead, he refused to take the money and ended up making Mary quite angry – almost costing them the wedding.
While it was eventually resolved, it’s a lesson in making sure your financial goals align with your partner’s. It’s hard to save up for the down payment on the house if your spouse is more interested in buying shoes, right? My husband and I like to have “finance dates” to talk money: Put the kids to bed, order in some takeout, and go over our budget, spending habits, and goals. It’s a good way to stay connected to our shared goals and avoid any potential ambiguity.
Luckily, Matthew and Mary ironed out their financial differences before they got married, an excellent lesson in communication. Having the all-important money talk before you say “I do” allows you to define your goals, talk about budgeting, and start your marriage without the added pressure of money disagreements.
9. Take Pride in Your Work
The upstairs/downstairs aspect of “Downton Abbey” may be what attracts viewers the most. How a group of individuals can lead such different lives all while residing in the same home is fascinating. But while the servants in the home may spend their days cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other menial tasks, they take real pride in what they do. Plus, many of the characters aspire to higher positions, whether it’s Thomas’s rise to being a valet, or Daisy’s journey in the kitchen.
Whether you’re upwardly mobile or you feel like you’re stuck in a dead-end job, there’s something to be said for a work ethic where you do your best because you take pride in the results. If “Downton” is any indication, hard work is usually recognized and can result in better opportunities and improved satisfaction. Taking care of your responsibilities and ensuring that you’re proud of the results can help further your career, but can also boost your self-esteem.
Yes, the world of “Downton Abbey” is completely fictional. But just because it’s a television drama doesn’t mean there are some lessons to be learned. Apart from the love stories, juicy scandals, and revolving characters, there’s an undertone of what finances were like in the 1920s. Learn from Lord Grantham’s mistakes in money management, follow Daisy’s example in taking pride in your work, and follow Matthew and Mary’s story arc all the way to the bank.
Have you noticed any other financial themes in “Downton Abbey”?