What “Sex and the City” Got Wrong About Money (And 5 Things It Got Right)

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Guys. I did it. I finally figured out a way to turn my mild Sex and the City obsession into a blog post. I've missed the boat on all of the initial 20th-anniversary posts celebrating 20 years since the series debuted, but I recently rewatched the entire six seasons and it's interesting how different it is to me now at 31 than when I watched it at 26, (and before at 18). All of the jokes continue to take on new meanings and layers, despite how much of the series hasn't aged well.

I continue to love the six seasons (don't even f*ck with the awful movies) because it will always have a soft spot in my heart. But even I can agree the show sends some seriously messed up messages about women and money, which is surprising from a show that made its name shattering notions about what it means to be female in the 21st century.

Below I've listed what the series got wrong and ultimately what it did right when it comes to women and money.

What “Sex and the City” Got Wrong

 

Carrie's Lavish Lifestyle

The most talked about money topic when it comes to “Sex and the City” is how Carrie was able to swing her lifestyle (and closet) on the (presumably paltry) salary of a newspaper columnist. She doesn't cook, she's always eating out, shopping, and drinking and there's only two episodes where she's consciously trying to save money. The Financial Diet did a great piece on what her lifestyle would've cost, and came to the conclusion Carrie basically overspent her income by about $3,000 per month. #yikes.

I also like this one by Thought Catalogue that calculates her income in 1998 prices. 

Any way you slice it, Carrie continuing her lavish lifestyle even in the face of financial hardship is ridiculous and immature. And I idolized her glamorous (read, unaffordable) lifestyle for years.

Although I mostly keep that to myself because it looks so, so dumb on television and I can only imagine how it looked in real life.

What the modern woman should do: Set a realistic budget for your lifestyle (tutorial here), cut down on overspending, only spend the appropriate amount on clothes for your income.

 

Carrie's Credit Card Use

Given the evidence listed above, it's no surprise Carrie was a chronic credit user. Also, lending requirements were incredibly relaxed in the 90's, so she probably had a lot of credit to play with. Below are some of the more iconic “Carrie vs. Her Credit Card” Moments:

 

  • In Season 1, Episode 5 (The Power of Female Sex) when the shoe store clerk CUTS UP HER CARD in front of her and looks downright gleeful about it.
  • And in the episode (which I'll mention a lot in this piece because it was one of the few that really, really hinted at the heart of Carrie's money problems), Season Four, Episode 16 (Ring a Ding Ding) she goes into the bank and we learn she only has $900 in savings. She says “I just paid my credit card bill.”
  • In Season 6, Episode 19 (An American Girl in Paris, Part One) she mentions buying more than she intended at Dior. Aleksandre says, “You had one credit card, yes?” and she responds, “One I won't be using for a very, very long time.”

 

What the modern woman should do: Avoid credit cards if you can. If you're in credit card debt, focus on how you're going to pay off debt (tutorial here, here, and here.) Make sure to preserve your good credit so you can borrow when you need to. Carrie was initially denied a home mortgage loan in PRE RECESSION America, back when they were giving out home loans to pretty much everyone. This is probably the single, biggest indicator of how bad off Carrie was (financially speaking.)

 

 

Carrie's General Attitude About $

I so, so agree with this 2013 Film School Rejects article about how the “Carrie can't afford her apartment” episode (Ring a Ding Ding) is easily the worst of the series. Carrie is at her childish, narcissistic worst in this episode; her life is in financial shambles and while we see an entire episode of her being bummed about just how precarious her situation is (and how she got there), she doesn't seem to really, really get it.

And she actually expects her friends to help her buy her apartment.

 

While her earning power drastically improves in later seasons (with the books and the Vogue column) Carrie never really adjusts her lifestyle to make better financial choices. Just watch the next two seasons for proof of how she refuses to take true responsibility for her financial state.

What the modern woman should do: Don't stick your head in the sand when it comes to your finances. Continue to educate yourself in order to be more financially empowered.

 

 Lack of Savings

 

While Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte do seem to have a better grip on their finances, all of the girls spend money on clothes and nights out rather than keeping it in the bank. In a “Ring a Ding Ding,” Miranda offers Carrie ~$15,000 and Samantha offers her the rest.

With Samantha being a business owner, it's hard to gauge her complete earnings but we can estimate Miranda's. She's a partner in a Manhattan law firm probably earning between $300-$600k (depending on the size of the firm.)

If we assume she's saving for retirement, her amount in savings is still a little low for liquid cash savings if she puts 10% of her income away each year. Or maybe she just only wanted to loan Carrie $15k, because, let's face it, she's pretty irresponsible.

What the modern woman should do:  If you have an employer who does a 401k match, contribute so you get the money and give the money time to grow for your retirement. Also, try and save 10% of your annual income each year into savings.

 

Charlotte's Lifestyle

As the protagonist, we get intimate glimpses into Carrie's lifestyle (and finances) but what we don't see much of is Charlotte's financial situation, and for me, she brings up the biggest questions.

  • Even though Trey gives her the apartment, is she also getting alimony?
  • How does she afford utilities and taxes on the apartment (much less her living expenses) without a job?
  • Why is she never stressed about money?

I know she has difficulty getting hired again once she leaves the workforce, but she never seems worried and we never hear mention of how this affects her lifestyle.

Did Charlotte secretly have a large inheritance we never heard about? (I think we're meant to assume she comes from “family money,” perhaps not Trey's level but similar.)

There are so many disservices this show did to women, but I think one of the biggest was not having Charlotte return to work post-divorce. It promotes the message once you marry rich, you no longer have to worry about your financial situation.

And I'm not even entirely sure Charlotte would've been able to contest her prenuptial agreement. But that's another post for another day.

What the modern woman should do: Have an emergency fund, a f*ck off fund, and smaller savings accounts so you're always prepared. If Charlotte was a self-made woman without financial help from Mom & Dad (perhaps she had art investments?), be a Charlotte, not a Carrie.

Actually, be a Samantha or Miranda. They were the true financial heroines of the series and Miranda is woefully underrated in my opinion. 

What The Series Got Right About Women and Money

Okay, I'm tired of bashing SATC.

 

The Importance of Negotiation

There are many instances on the show where the fabulous foursome are seen asking for exactly what they want.

  • Miranda negotiating multiple real estate transactions (first on her own apartment, then for the house in Brooklyn). Charlotte negotiating her prenup with Bunny.
  • Carrie asking for a higher rate with Vogue (up for $4.50 per word!)
  • Samantha in literally every single scene.

And this is how the show gets women and money right in a big way – it normalized women being more assertive and asking for exactly what they want. And it's helpful to see other women doing it, even if it's just on television.

Generosity

 

These women are lavish, but they are nothing if not generous.

  • The way Samantha and Miranda offer to swoop in and rescue Carrie (financially) when she needs it most.
  • Miranda financially supporting Steve's mother when she gets sick.
  • Charlotte volunteers constantly and Samantha is frequently shown doing pro bono PR work.
  • (I know I said I don't want to talk about the movies) But in both films Carrie is shown caring deeply for the people around her; generously giving $2000+ purses to her assistant (SATC1) and a wad of cash to her private butler in Abu Dhabi to visit his wife (SATC2).

And despite all of their financial missteps, I love the visualization of women helping other women (and the people around them,) whether it is through financial gifts or the gift of their time.

The Struggle of the Female Breadwinner

Even though women earning mad stacks is even more commonplace now than it was then (nearly 40% of wives now out earn their husbands), it's still a difficult role to navigate. (Just google “women earning more than men,” for proof.) From Miranda's awkward courtship with Steve to Samantha trying to give Smith $300 when he lost his job, to that weird guy Charlotte met at the museum freaking out about the size of her apartment, the show very clearly chose to tackle what it was like for a woman to be astronomically more successful than her partner, long before it became commonplace.

And let's not forget the toxic masculinity of Berger, whose insecurity around Carrie's book success especially stings fifteen years later.

 

And the show did this in a respectful-yet-relatable way. The women weren't shrews, and the men weren't to be pitied.

 

 

Women Buying Real Estate

When Miranda buys her apartment in Season 2/ Episode 5 (“Four Women and a Funeral”) she encounters a significant amount of shade from both her realtor and her lender, not unlike a similar kind I encountered when I bought my first home. Except I was buying my house a 15 years after fictional Miranda bought her piece of Manhattan real estate.

In 2018, more women are buying homes than men.

What Female Power-earners Look Like

Can we just say what SATC absolutely nailed in terms of the financial conversation? Women who enjoy earning money, are super invested in their careers and aren't ashamed to spend their incomes however they want. Carrie may be a financial train wreck, but these women are empowered and goal oriented and I'm still inspired by watching it.

When I was 18, I dreamed of earning my own money like Miranda, running my own business like Samantha, and negotiating more per word like Carrie. (Sorry, Charlotte, your clothes are cute but I got nothing.)

 

This post is probably a love note to an epic series, but I do want to point out that I'm not turning a blind eye to its problems. For those looking to reconcile the two, I think we have to be content with how groundbreaking this show was in its day and move on. The show accurately depicted how complex it is to be a woman — emotionally, structurally, financially — and money is just as complex a topic. Rather than looking to the show for answers, it's important to express gratitude for it's contribution to the conversation.

I'm not sure anyone could have imagined how much the world has changed since the series premier in 1998: from the advent of social media, to the “great recession”, up to recent movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. (Rewatch the super-cringey episode where Carrie's male boss at Vogue comes onto her if you haven't and you'll see what I'm talking about.)

But…we can still love the show and its deeply flawed central character, whole-heartedly, while recognizing and learning from any bad behavior.

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  • Melinda
    September 20, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    You brought up a topic that I’ve been wondering about myself. I mostly stick money in my 401(k) to “hide it from myself” (still working on that savings thing….) but this advice got me wondering, “What the modern woman should do: If you have an employer who does a 401k match, contribute so you get the money and give the money time to grow for your retirement. Also, try and save 10% of your annual income each year into savings.” Is the recommendation 10% PLUS your 401(k) contribution, or at least 10% including your 401(k) contributions? I mean obviously I’d love to max out both, but reality means there’s a ceiling on savings if you’re paying for other things. Just curious as to your thoughts (and if you’ve already covered it, let me know!)

    And congrats on your home sale and shopping! So exciting.

    • Lauren Bowling
      September 20, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      Obviously 401k match + 10 percent of take home would be nice, but I think it’s okay to do whatever it takes to get match and then contribute a little above that.

  • MrMoneyBanks
    September 18, 2018 at 4:54 am

    Having never really watched much of Sex in the City the main impression I get of Carrie is that she’s a terrible role model when it comes to financial responsibility – good counter advice!

    • Lauren Bowling
      September 19, 2018 at 1:07 pm

      Lol yes. Despite her popularity, she is a pretty terrible role model.

  • GIULIA
    September 18, 2018 at 4:25 am

    Loving this post, most women would have a life like Carrie, but honestly I always thought about her income and finance, ho wever since I started to have a budget Imy salary went off in few times in stupid stuff, now I have a budget, emergency fund and savings not bad right?

  • george@dontpayfull.com
    September 17, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    I entirely agree with you on this one. There is a lot about finances, relationships, and lifestyles that women can learn from SATC besides enjoying the epic series.

    • Lauren Bowling
      September 19, 2018 at 1:08 pm

      You don’t know the lessons are there, but they sneak in.

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