CRUNCHEd: a blog about people and numbers

10 Sesame Street Finance Lessons for Everyone

Recently, Big Bird has been made the poster boy for wasteful spending, but is that fair? Aside from the fact that all public broadcasting expenditures put together make up a piddling 0.012% of the federal budget, many of us productive, responsible, now-adult citizens learned all we really needed to know not in kindergarten, but from its televisual equivalent: Sesame Street. "Viewers like us" gained a working knowledge of everything from phonics, to nutrition, to the diversity of our neighbors, to the hardest lesson of all, dealing with mortality. Nov. 10 marks 43 years of these valuable lessons from some of our favorite monsters, birds, and more.

Money is one of the factors that most pointedly separates the adult world from that of children. Begging parents for a bigger allowance or a sweet new toy is probably the extent of the average kid’s financial experience. You may even remember being annoyed as a child when PBS cut away at the end of the hour from Big Bird to the evening’s market report. However, in response to widespread angst about our era’s difficult economy, last year Sesame Street launched a program called "For Me, For You, For Later" to encourage kids’ financial literacy in a concerted way (Elmo even gave an exclusive New York Times interview to promote it). Even before that, however, Sesame Street contained a lot of practical wisdom, and as we grew up, that stayed with us at some deep level, even in our financial dealings. Here are 10 rich nuggets of edutainment that promote the kind of fiscal prudence even a grumpy, greedy Grouch could love:

  1. Sit right down and plan.

    What are the messages embedded in the chorus of this little ditty? First, find yourself a job. Then do it well: "The very best job you can." Just as importantly, always have a plan. Those are pretty solid pointers for starting out your financial life. If you keep your focus on truly implementing those goals on a day-to-day basis, you will never go too far astray.

  2. Don’t get suckered into costly and unnecessary purchases.

    The character named Lefty, also known as The Salesman, is a wily hustler who’s always got some shady goods to hawk. This con’s usual mark is Ernie, bless his credulous soul; here we see our good-natured orange fellow tempted into buying some air. This perp Lefty has also been recorded passing off empty boxes and invisible ice cream cones, fencing an obviously ill-gotten letter O and number 8, and even privatizing public assets for profit. He’s a good reminder to us all that slick salesmen don’t always have our best interests at heart. Caveat emptor.

  3. That cheese ain’t gonna make itself.

    Despite the angst-ridden voice of the child narrator (and the absence of a hairnet on that cheesemaker’s magnificent ’70s locks), you’ve got to love the short industrial and agricultural documentary films that peppered vintage Sesame Street episodes. Perhaps, as his conservative critics suspected all along, Big Bird was indoctrinating the nation’s youth, urging the preschool-etariat to seize the means of production. More likely, these behind-the-scenes peeks simply enriched our appreciation of the hard work and complex supply chains underlying the availability of things (e.g., a block of cheese) that we might otherwise have taken for granted. Besides, it’s obvious that Mr. Bird confines himself neither to the left, nor the right wing. Both are integral parts of who he is.

  4. You get what you pay for.

    In this parody of TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man, reporter Kermit interviews a professor who has designed his own man-machine, which is cheaper by five orders of magnitude. Unfortunately, it shows, and the results are disastrously wacky. Sometimes you must invest money up front to make a purchase that will last or get a job done right; even if it hurts now, it may cost you less in the long run.

  5. Indulgences are OK, so long as they’re occasional.

    Think of your budget like your caloric intake. Do you love cookies? Yes, of course you do. But a cookie is a sometime food. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional splurge on a much-needed vacation, a celebratory dinner (or cookie) out, an irresistible toy, or a little bit of retail therapy when you’re down. Just don’t make a habit out of throwing caution to the wind. Those little extravagances feel even better when you know you can actually afford them.

  6. The best things in life are free.

    After all the planning these 12 ladybugs surely put into this event, "they played jump rope but the rope it broke." So what did they do? "They just sat around telling knock-knock jokes," which don’t cost a thing (though Lefty might try to sell you one). The company of your loved ones is free, and a good outlet when you’re feeling stressed by the world of commerce: "They talked about the high price of furniture and rugs, and fire insurance for ladybugs." Take advantage of the friendly ear and good advice friends and relatives can offer.

  7. One man’s trash is another Grouch’s treasure.

    De-cluttering is good for your health and sanity, but being a pack rat has its advantages too; ideally you should store or sell the old stuff you paid good money for, rather than throwing it away. Oscar’s been squatting in the heart of New York for decades, collecting stuff (but not being collected; he must have been paying off the sanitation workers’ union). We wouldn’t be surprised if he had a lost Picasso sketch or a Mickey Mantle rookie card in there somewhere.

  8. Competition is a powerful force.

    Just look at how those flowers push to increase their own agricultural output to get "promoted" (but really, harvested) by the boss man. Incentivizing productivity is key to a prosperous economy. That said, too much stress will wilt you, so don’t forget to stop and smell the, um, roses.

  9. But sharing is also important.

    If you’re like us, you were wondering, when will the Children’s Television Workshop produce its own Carly Rae Jepsen parody video? The answer seems to be “back in July, when that was all the rage.” Cookie Monster may be a bit of a mooch (he’s definitely one of the 47%), but who could be heartless enough to deny this fiend his fix? If he ever really fell on hard times and had to panhandle, his sign would say "WHY LIE? IT FOR COOKIE." Luckily, the denizens of Sesame Street have a bleeding-heart communitarian spirit and would never let that happen.

  10. It begins with a single penny.

    We’ve all got to start somewhere. So don’t worry if you’re not rich. No matter what amount your accounting counts up to, the first number is always one. ONE, ah-ah-ah.

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