(by Jonathan Chevreau, National Post) Picturesque Aldergrove, B.C., is a quiet bedroom community an hour from Vancouver. I should clarify it was quiet until last Sunday, when it became known as the Million Dollar Neighbourhood, a new financial reality TV show with a twist — to raise the collective net worth of 100 Aldergrove families by $1-million in just 10 weeks.
Aldergrove, population 12,000, beat out two other towns in the province for the honour. The show is carried by the Oprah Winfrey Network (Canada), owned by Corus Entertainment, and set in B.C. because it’s produced by Vancouver-based Force Four Entertainment Inc.
This is a U.S.-style reality-TV show, with pathos aplenty as the cameras roll before fiscally fragile families.
“If debt were a swimming pool, we’d be drowning,” one beleagured couple tells the cameras.
Co-host Bruce Sellery comes across like Jeff Probst, host of Survivor: alternatively scolding and cajoling the local citizenry about their financial waywardness. In Sunday’s debut, Sellery and clinical psychologist Joti Samra introduce themselves by jumping out of an armoured truck while a helicopter sprinkles dollar bills from the sky.
“We stopped at nothing to capture the visual drama of these stories because money on its own is like watching paint dry,” Sellery says in an interview.
Like any reality show worth its salt, financial lures play a big role: 10 by my count. Fear and greed alternate: Some families fear losing their homes or running out of money before they run out of month. But Sellery dangles a $10,000 carrot each episode plus a show-stopping bonanza of $100,000 for the grand finale.
Each week, the community selects one family to receive $10,000 for leadership in raising the town’s net worth. If at the end they succeed in boosting it by $1-million, one individual is awarded $100,000, a sum the producers bill as “life-changing.”
To win, families must collectively discover how to earn or find savings of $100,000 per week for each of the 10 weeks. This works out to raising the net worth of each family by $1,000 each week, through some combination of scrimping, saving, swapping, bartering, fundraising and entrepreneurship. These goals sometimes conflict, as when residents save money crossing the border to shop in nearby Linden in the U.S., albeit at the expense of local merchants. Meanwhile, other episodes are geared to boosting revenues of those same merchants.
If the show gets across the single vital concept of net worth, it will have provided a public service. Net worth is simply the total of all assets minus liabilities, so someone with no financial assets, a $300,000 home but also a $300,000 mortgage has a net worth of zero. Someone with $50,000 in an RRSP but $100,000 in credit card debt has a net worth of negative $50,000.
The opener begins with families handing over their credit cards for a week, challenged to live only on cash. To that end, they’re invited to search for all the hidden change that finds its way into cars, couches, jars and various nooks and crannies of the average home.
That raises thousands but is only a fraction of the tax savings reaped once H&R Block Canada combs through the citizenry’s old tax returns. H&R Block senior tax analyst Cleo Hamel says it found errors in a third of the Aldergrove returns scrutinized. Many underestimate how much they lose on missed deductions and tax credits: One couple is gobsmacked when they learn they’re getting a $14,000 refund.
For all the overblown television gimmickry, the show has moments of moving social and community interactions. There are genuine cases of hardship, with one episode devoted to bankruptcy and consumer proposals. Some couples tug at our heartstrings, such as the mother who hopes to send her disabled daughter to the Paralympic Games. It’s pretty clear who the producers want the audience to root for to win the hundred grand.
Is there value in this show? Sure. I view it as infotainment but, as an exercise in raising financial consciousness, it’s hard to quibble with putting the spotlight on frugality and saving, making dollars stretch, avoiding high credit card interest and exploiting every possible tax deduction to keep tax burdens to a legal minimum.
We financial journalists often preach to the converted but this show is a reminder that most denizens of Main Street need a crash course in basic financial literacy.
Vancouver advisor Clay Gillespie thinks the show is a great idea. “It appeals to people who normally are not interested in finances and should change behaviour when people see how easy it is to be financially prudent. I could say the same things until I’m blue in the face and people wouldn’t listen.”
Forced to choose between this and the final report of Ottawa’s Task Force on Financial Literacy, I’d pick the reality show any day of the week. Hollywood production values invariably trump government shelfware.
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