Is Reality TV Impacting How Much Money We Spend?

Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, Love It or List It, all versions of House Hunters (International, Renovation, Island and regular). I’m there. I’m obsessed. Even listing those titles made my pupils dilate. I love a house reveal, an island bench or a particularly demanding client. Don’t get me started on when a real estate agent gets snarky. It is perfection.

An aspect of these shows that I find particularly fascinating is the money. How much they have, how little they don’t. The word ‘budget’ pops up a trillion times, yet they always seem to go over theirs like it’s no big thing. Money is nothing more than a number figure, not representative of a lifetime of hard work and frugality.

It made me think – due to my frequent, possibly concerning, binge watching – what impact these shows were having on my actual budget. If I’m witnessing them being stretched so far on television, does it affect how I spend?

I’ve always been interested in decoration and design, but the onslaught of these shows has turned my interest into obsession. I keep looking for ways to improve my house, buying fresh flowers to sit in a vase, genuinely believing that a perfectly tossed throw will fill me with a warm feeling of contentment (and tbh, it kind of does). I can hardly stop myself from buying an overpriced candle. I’ve convinced myself it’s important.

But at the end of the day, it’s stuff that just sits in my house. One that is an actual rented knockabout home, not an immaculately dressed set. So why does my brain mute the common sense?

Our actual selves vs who we wanna be

In the 80s, psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius published a study on the “now self” and the “possible self”, explaining the difference between your current reality and the one you aim for. The sole purpose of reality television is to present a living, breathing, real life version of your possible self. The study points to the ways that our affluent imagined realities manifest themselves in consumerism. In other words, our aspirations make us want to buy stuff.

With home improvement shows, the direct tie between wanting the possible self and achieving it ,is through rearranging, renovating and buying a whole bunch of stuff. Those people did it! So can I!

And it applies to other reality shows too. Think of watching the flawless Kardashians walking through their everyday life in their designer clothes with ease. It makes you want to buy those clothes too. And style your hair, do your make-up to within an inch of perfection. Or at least a Kylie Jenner lip kit. Body image shows like The Biggest Loser and Revenge Body all point to weight loss and physical ‘perfection’ (not a real thing!) as a way of achieving that possible self. The Bachelor reminds you that there is, in fact, one person waiting for you to hand you a rose.

Reality television tells us that there is a tangible, real-life way to achieve the same sort of lifestyle, and it’s by spending money.

We bought our bed, now we sleep in it

This sort of behaviour starts long before the advent of television. Steven Reiss and James Wiltz wrote a paper called “Why People Watch Reality TV.” They found that the more people are concerned with external validation, the more they watch reality television. The paper writes, “The more status-oriented people are, the more likely they are to view reality television and report pleasure and enjoyment.”

If you are already predisposed to status symbols like clothes, cars, houses, expensive smelly candles, you will be drawn to reality television, which will encourage you to buy those things anyway. A sick, never-ending circle. Yes, I probably buy too many homewares because I watch a lot of Selling Houses Australia. But I watch a lot of Selling Houses Australia because I want a house for myself to show off.

Interestingly, the study also adds that people who watch reality television shows do so because they see a reflection of their ordinary selves in it. The paper writes, “The message of reality television—that millions of people are interested in watching real life experiences of ordinary people—implies that ordinary people are important. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves, and fantasize that they could gain celebrity status by being on television.”

Which makes sense considering how much I see in Gina Liano that reminds me of my sassiest self.

Basically, if you’re wondering why all your hard-earned cash keeps disappearing from your account, stop watching reality television. It’s probably having a bigger impact on your wallet than you realise. Or, keep watching it. Just stay away from the smelly candles.

Josephine is a writer from western Sydney who likes to blatantly lie on her bios. She played the youngest sister in 80s sitcom Family Ties and looks fantastic running with a backpack on.


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