(by Mike Hagar, The Vancouver Sun)
Facing crushing debt, big credit card bills and out-of-control spending, would you expose your family and its finances to the unflattering glare of reality TV?
One hundred households in the small community of Aldergrove agreed to do just that as contestants on Million Dollar Neighbourhood.
The show, produced by Vancouver-based Force Four Entertainment for the Canadian arm of Oprah Winfrey’s TV network, and aims to help the contestants scrimp and save over 10 weeks to increase their collective net worth by an average of $100,000 each week in hopes of ultimately earning the show’s namesake. Each week, the families will vote to give $10,000 to the household that invested the most sweat equity into each challenge.
In the series opener, which airs Sunday on OWN, the tasks involve searching for loose change, discovering hidden money in their taxes and giving up credit cards.
In front of several cameras the families confront their modern-day money problems with the help of financial advisers and a clinical psychologist who offer demanding solutions to break the cycle of debt. Each household faces unique challenges, yet producers hope that viewers identify with the various problems — and solutions — the families offer up.
“It’s funny how as you’re doing it you don’t really think about the TV aspect of it — it’s just you talking to a commentator or a participant,” said 52-year-old Air Canada pilot Keith Pineau, who along with wife Brenda and their 13-year-old triplets, opened up their lives to the show. “I guess we’ll see …. how much of an ass I made of myself.”
Pineau and his self-described “trophy wife” Brenda live in a palatial 6,400-square-foot home and by all outward appearances live a very comfortable lifestyle. However, they were facing cash flow problems from raising active triplets and losing almost $130,000 to bad investments.
“[Others on the show] do make assumptions about you. Right or wrong, it’s still an assumption,” Brenda, said. “We found that there is a lot of reverse bias.
“People who don’t have money tend to regard people who they assume have money differently.”
Keith says the also show taught him not to judge others so quickly.
“You don’t judge a book by its cover, you don’t judge a person by the first impression that you get,” Keith said. “You might see somebody that’s just wearing jeans and a T-shirt and turns out he’s the mayor of the city.”
The Pineaus say the show helped them learn to live with less disposable income while investing more in their retirement and their triplets’ education.
Bruce Heslop knows all about financial hardship. The founder of the Aldergrove Business Association had his lawn equipment business Diamond Bar Equipment broken into 29 times over the past several years.
“We found ways to survive but there’s a point where you say we can’t do it any more,” Heslop said. “We reached that point about the same time the TV show came to town.”
The financial experts helped them save more money for their daughter, who has special needs, but at that point Heslop said they had already gone through the most painful cost-cutting procedures.
On top of the business’ initial startup fees the Heslops lost close to $250,000 due to the thefts and forgoing the debilitating insurance claims. At one point, while the storefront was being repaired, Heslop spent two weeks away from his five kids and wife Rita sleeping in the store’s parking lot and guarding his business from his camper.
So why would you put all this on national TV?
“If you tell us everything, if you’re willing to go on television and expose the dirty laundry and the truth about your financial situation, someone else in Canada is going to be in that same situation and now know what to do,” Heslop said show producers told him and his wife. “It’s not hopeless.
“If I can help somebody else dig their way out and find a solution that leads to a positive life it’s worth it.”
Contestants wouldn’t spill the beans as to whether the group achieved their ultimate goal, but Pineau and others praised the experience for making the community a stronger, more fiscally responsible group.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Joti Samra, who co-hosts the show with financial guru Bruce Sellery, said the couples who headed the families had to learn to communicate about their finances, which, along with sex, is something most couples struggle to talk about.
“We have a huge emotional relationship with money a lot of that comes from our family of origin families – you’re bringing together two individuals with two separate histories,” Samra said. “First of all to even admit there are financial issues and to be able to speak about that with strangers in your community — it makes you very vulnerable.
“This is a community that I think was able to overcome feelings of personal shame, guilt, sadness and anger to be able to acknowledge that they were struggling financially.”
Samra said the people she met in the small town were dealing with the same emotional problems as her clients with six-figure salaries who visit her practice in Vancouver’s tony Yaletown neighbourhood. “It actually has very little to do with what you earn.”
Producers are hoping viewers draw as strong a connection.
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