What 'Mad Men' Teaches Us About Money

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TV Mad men
Jamie Trueblood/AMC/AP

Millions of Americans are addicted to "Mad Men," the AMC drama chronicling the lives of the people at ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Enthralling us over seven seasons are their mostly sordid sex lives, boozy business lunches, snazzy apartments, period clothes and finned Cadillacs.

Although money is rarely addressed, suck-up Bob Benson of season six (James Wolk) sums up their attitudes neatly: "They say money can't buy happiness, but it sure as hell buys everything else." Here's what else you can learn about money from the hit show, which wraps up this year.

'Happiness Is the ... Freedom from Fear'

Agency creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) leads a complicated life. He had been on unscheduled leave after a major meltdown in front of the Hershey (HSY) clients. He conspires with his former secretary to keep his family in the dark about his out-of-work status. His relationship with his work and money is so tied in to the '60s concept of the masculine breadwinner that on the April 27 episode he finally admits his fear to wife, Megan (Jessica Pare),"If you found out what happened, you wouldn't look at me in the same way."

Draper could have taken a job at another agency for less money but submits sheepishly to be part of the SCDP fold under humiliating conditions to keep up his lifestyle and win back Megan.

In today's dollars, he earns $356,000 a year, yet he can't support his lifestyle in Manhattan, private schools, first-class fights and Hawaiian vacations. He, like other people of that time, also doesn't use credit cards much, as they were a relatively new phenomenon. To this man, who grew up in a Depression era bordello, cash is still king.

For Draper, "Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear," as he pitches to the Lucky Strike clients in the pilot. Booze, babes and bread are only means to quiet his mind over his secret identity and hardscrabble past.

Takeaway: Fight to keep that job -- even if it means compromise.

The Power of a Job You Like

Agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is unwilling to help out his newlywed daughter financially yet is more than willing to throw wads of cash to bed partners and alimony to ex-wives. He does tries to do right by his new son with former secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). But overall, money for him is just a means to keep score and keep scoring. He is known for his zingy one liners, such as what he says to his psychiatrist: "I'm just acknowledging that life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end, and someone else will get the bill." But the most endearing thing about Sterling is a lesson to everyone: when you treat work as fun (and boy, does he) you will likely succeed.

Takeaway: Find work that engages you.

The Glass Ceiling

In 2014 dollars, they all make good money, save the secretarial pool. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) started as a secretary and was deservedly promoted to copy chief. In her personal life, she is both meek (she still demurs to her boyfriend and takes an apartment in a neighborhood that frightens her) and bold (to generate multiple streams of income, she becomes a landlady).

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is a single working mom whose drive to support her son leads her to sleep with a client to get the Avon (AVP) account and agency partnership. Yet, she's unwilling for Sterling to contribute to their son's upkeep. She is well aware of the gender pay inequality that persists today. President Obama even noted in his 2014 State of the Union speech women earn 77 cents to every dollar a man earns, exhorting, "It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."

Takeaway: Look for supplements to your salary. Earn as much as you can while you're young (but don't sleep your way to the top).

Don't Count Your Bonuses Before They Hatch

The saddest object lesson in seasons past concerned Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) who brilliantly devises ways to save the newly independent agency from financial ruin. Unfortunately, as financial officer, he should have known better when he is hit with a large tax bill. Trying to live the New York City lifestyle, he has been living beyond his means.

To pay the debt he convinces the other partners to pay out Christmas bonuses. When a client loss cancels the bonuses, Pryce forges Draper's signature on a bonus check, is caught by Draper and fired. He takes his own life in his office.

Takeaway: Put some money aside for emergencies.

What Does It All Mean?

You may not be able to afford the "Mad Men" lifestyle, but you should have freedom from fear and maybe the smell of a new Cadillac.

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jdykbpl45

Much to do about nothing.

April 30 2014 at 2:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
llozano

My purpose in life is not make rich men richer.

April 30 2014 at 12:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Floretta

It was the Jaguar account, not Avon, for which she slept with Herb to get the account. She got Avon on her own, no personal favors involved. That's another reason why she was so angry with Don who at the end of last season singlehandedly dumped Jaguar for another car company (AND put the kibosh on taking the company public, which cost Joan a bundle.)

April 30 2014 at 9:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

Wisedom is more valuable than gold. A wise person will always have more money than they need to be happy. If you think having truck loads of money will solve everything you should ask Steve Jobs. Um, wait a minute you can't. He made some unwise decisions and has passed on.
May he rest in peace.

April 30 2014 at 6:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply