Credit cards pop up in supporting roles on TV, often in the hands of minors or childlike adults. Their antics reveal the consequences of impulsive buying in ways not so hilarious in real life
Television’s love affair with the credit card began long before most Americans had actual plastic in their pocket.
Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) gave Lucy (Lucille Ball) his card to shop for a Florida vacation in a 1956 “I Love Lucy” episode that featured Orson Welles. Chief Dan Mathews (Broderick Crawford) tracked down a pair of credit card thieves in a 1958 episode of “Highway Patrol.” And Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) put the brakes on Wally’s (Tony Dow) card envy after Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond) bragged about his in a 1963 episode of “Leave It to Beaver.”
Since then, credit cards have popped up in supporting roles on the small screen, usually in sitcoms, often in the hands of minors or childlike adults (think Joey on “Friends,” Sam on “Cheers”, George on “Seinfeld”) unfamiliar with the hilarious consequences of impulse buying.
Here’s our list of the Top 10 television episodes in which credit cards take a star turn.
The setup: When Robbie (Billy Ray Cyrus) gives his kids Miley (Miley Cyrus) and Jackson (Jason Earles) credit cards for emergency use only, Miley proclaims, “Today, I am a woman!” Unfortunately, Miley’s first card-carrying emergency leads to a massive flea market shopping spree. When reality kicks in, remorse follows. Unable to return her haul, Miley enlists Jackson to sell pieces of her Hannah Montana wardrobe online to pay off her debt. Naturally, mischief ensues.
Why it’s worthy: Malibu teens shopping at a flea market? As if.
Money lesson: Kids will be kids. Consider prepaid or low-limit cards for “minor” emergency use.
The Facts of Life “Post-Christmas Card” (1987)
The setup: Natalie’s (Mindy Cohn) New Year’s resolution to upgrade her professional image quickly goes awry when she receives a credit card in the mail. She and Blair (Lisa Whelchel) hasten to the mall, where Nat breaks the card in on a business suit and scheduler. When Tootie (Kim Fields) goes ballistic over Nat’s irresponsible spending, Nat surrenders her card to boarding house mom Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman).
Why it’s worthy: Natalie neatly sums up the famous last words of every credit card casualty: “I know how to handle my finances. If I didn’t, the bank wouldn’t have sent me a card!”
Money lesson: Don’t dive into debt just to dress for success. Let income dictate your outflow.
Boston Legal “Legal Deficits” (2005)
The setup: When his secretary Melissa (Marisa Coughlin) falls victim to onerous credit card terms that leave her $50,000 in debt, attorney Alan Shore (James Spader) takes her credit card issuer to court. In negotiations with bank attorney Melvin “You’re a hoot!” Palmer (Christopher Rich), Alan decries the industry’s bait-and-switch teaser rates, universal default, inscrutable contracts and strong-arm lobbying tactics. The bank eventually settles out of court, waiving Melissa’s entire debt – conditioned on confidentiality, of course.
Why it’s worthy: Alan’s impassioned airing of the card industry’s dirty laundry would be addressed four years later in the Credit CARD Act of 2009. For Boston Legal fans, the episode introduced Jerry “Hands” Esperson (Christian Clemenson), the firm’s brilliant lawyer with Asperger Syndrome.
Money lesson: Read your credit card terms. Although The CARD Act outlawed many onerous practices, there’s still plenty of opportunity to fall prey to debt.
Married … with Children “Master the Possibilities” (1988)
The setup: When Al and Peg Bundy (Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal) receive a credit card in the mail for their dog Buck, they convince themselves that it’s OK to abuse it. “What are they going to do, sue a dog?” Al reasons. The Bundys immediately decamp to a champagne bubble bath at the Ritz, leaving Bud (David Faustino) to watch over a houseful of new acquisitions. When Bud eventually bursts their bubble, Al is forced to moonlight as a bellman to pay off their suite.
Why it’s worthy: Bundyland would be somehow incomplete without the credit card variation on Al’s recurring money-for-nothing daydream.
Money lesson: Credit card fraud is nothing to bark at. Keep track of your plastic
CSI: Miami “Bang, Bang, Your Debt” (2007)
The setup: The CSI team links a college coed’s apparent suicide to her runaway credit card debt. When they track down the card company representative who’s been dunning her for payment, he claims he was merely on campus to head off his manager, who has been offering his own personal debt forgiveness program to willing coeds.
Why it’s worthy: Even Horatio (David Caruso) would lift his signature sunglasses at this predatory debt forgiveness scheme.
Money lesson: Credit card debt can be a killer. If you get in over your head, contact your card company first to work out a payment plan you can live with.
I Dream of Jeannie “Never Put a Genie on a Budget” (1969)
The setup: After Jeannie (Barbara Eden) runs up a $2,000 credit card bill by charging her way through Cocoa Beach, Fla., Maj.Tony (Larry Hagman) puts her on a budget. Unaccustomed to living within earthly means, Jeannie overdoes it, selling Tony’s car, cutting meals back to half a TV dinner and renting out the guest room to hippies. Her uber-frugality nearly costs Tony his job when their boarders invite hippie friends over during a NASA going-away party for a visiting Russian major. Fortunately, the hippies love Russian folk music.
Why it’s worthy: Dig this groovy take on America’s far-out consumer culture as viewed from both sides of detente, man.
Money lesson: If Jeannie can balance a household budget without blinking, there’s hope for the rest of us.
Saved by the Bell “The Lisa Card” (1989)
The setup: When her father rewards her for good grades by sending her to the mall to buy something nice with his credit card, Lisa (Lark Voorhies) splurges on a $400 outfit. Afraid to face her dad, she turns to Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Slater (Mario Lopez) and the rest of the gang to help her make money fast. In the end, she fesses up and vows to work off the balance as the worst waitress ever.
Why it’s worthy: Zack sums it up best: “The Lisa Card. Don’t leave home with it.”
Money lesson: Beauty is in the eye of the cardholder. Don’t take advantage of borrowed plastic.
The Sopranos “Luxury Lounge” (2006)
The setup: American Express fraud investigators pay a visit to struggling restaurateur Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) concerning suspected credit card fraud at his restaurant, Nuovo Vesuvio. Benny Fazio (Max Casella), who has been helping Chris Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) steal card data from Artie, tips his hand when he purchases expensive sandals for Artie’s new hostess. Enraged that his childhood pal Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) would authorize ripping him off, Artie gives Benny a midnight beating. Benny retaliates with a creative use for scalding marinara sauce.
Why it’s worthy: Ventimiglia’s visceral rage as a card fraud victim is priceless.
Money lesson: Card fraud victimless? Fuggedaboutit!
Malcolm in the Middle “Hal’s Christmas Gift” (2004)
The setup: Tight onChristmas cash, Hal and Lois (Bryan Cranston, Jane Kazcmarek) announce that the family will make their own presents this year. When Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) comes up with two clocks, secretly purchased with a credit card, Hal is too embarrassed to present his homemade Boggle game. Instead, he promises the family a “big surprise” without a clue as to what he will do. He’s saved when he discovers Malcolm’s credit card receipt. Hal secretly lifts Malcolm’s card while hugging him and uses it to take the family on a ski vacation.
Why it’s worthy: It reverses one of TV’s most popular plots by having the parent misuse their child’s credit card.
Money lesson: Live within your means, especially during the holidays.
Saturday Night Live! “Don’t Buy Stuff” (2006)
The setup: Seated at the kitchen table, a married couple (Steve Martin, Amy Pohler) bemoan their credit card debt. Chris Parnell enters to introduce his new debt management book, “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford.” Pohler grabs the book. “This looks interesting!” she says. “I’m confused,” Martin admits. “Shouldn’t you buy it before you have the money?” “No,” says Parnell. “Why not?” Pohler asks. “It’s in the book,” says Parnell. “It’s only one page long, the advice is priceless and the book is free.” “Wow, I like the sound of that!” Pohler says. Martin agrees: “Yeah. We can put it on our credit card!”
Why it’s worthy: Nothing like a little absurd humor to point out the ultimate absurdity of getting into credit card debt in the first place.
Money lesson: What else? Don’t buy stuff you cannot afford.
See related: More money and credit lessons from TV, What soap operas teach us about money