It's no secret our favorite TV characters' lifestyles aren't often particularly achievable in real life. Although plenty of recent television hits—"Succession" and "The White Lotus," among others—are built upon their sharp satires of the impossibly wealthy 1%, plenty of older series showed characters living lavishly despite the low pay grade that they would most likely have in their field.
It's possible these characters simply have rich parents or were lucky enough to score rent-controlled apartments back in the '90s and early aughts—looking at you, Monica Geller. Even so, these characters often live in huge cities like New York City and Los Angeles, which have some of the highest living costs not only in the United States but worldwide. How could they afford that? TV magic, that's how.
Many of these characters hail from beloved sitcoms, like Cosmo Kramer from "Seinfeld," Nick Miller from "New Girl," and Max and Caroline from "2 Broke Girls." But hey, at least the financially irresponsible Nick had roommates to help foot the bill for his LA loft!
Stacker compiled a list of 15 iconic TV characters whose spending habits would likely be questioned if they existed in the real world. We included Bureau of Labor Statistics data on average occupational salaries for many characters. The main time periods of each show's first season were also provided for added context.
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TV show and show's main time period: "Sex and the City," late '90s
Carrie Bradshaw managed to buy $40,000 worth of designer shoes, so many that she used her oven to store coats, despite only writing one column per week. Factor in the average writer's salary of $78,950 as of May 2021, and you'll understand why Carrie has long been the poster child for TV characters with unrealistically lavish lifestyles. Sure, she lived in a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment that cost only $700 per month—but still.
TV show and show's main time period: "Friends," mid-'90s
The characters of "Friends" have also become infamous for living beyond their means. Monica and Rachel had a rent-controlled apartment, but how exactly Joey Tribbiani managed to live in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment as a struggling actor who suffered through long periods of unemployment is another question altogether. The average actor makes around $23.48 per hour. It can partially be explained by how heavily Joey relies on his best pal, Chandler, who—according to the calculations of one fan—he owed a whopping $119,760 by the series' end.
TV show and show's main time period: "Dexter," mid-'00s
The average lab technician makes around $53,890 per year. So how did technician-by-day, serial killer-by-night Dexter Morgan afford to work as the sole breadwinner for his wife, stepchildren, and son, keep up a beachside apartment and find time for plenty of murder? They never did say, so chalk it up to creative license.
TV show and show's main time period: "Frasier," mid-'90s
Sure, the titular "Frasier" protagonist Frasier Crane did alright for himself as a radio psychiatrist. But given that the average psychiatrist made $56,813.48 in 1993 (when the series began), how Frasier managed to pay for a three-bedroom Seattle luxury condo is a bit of a mystery. These days, it's a bit more explainable—the average psychiatrist makes an annual mean wage of $249,760.
TV show and show's main time period: "How I Met Your Mother," mid-'00s
Lily makes a slightly better living after leaving her career as a kindergarten teacher to work as an art consultant to the Captain in later seasons of "How I Met Your Mother." However, in earlier seasons, her chronic stress shopping forces her husband, Marshall, to take a corporate job rather than following his dreams of becoming a do-good environmental lawyer. For context: The average kindergarten teacher makes $43,060 per year, and the average art professional makes $58,910 per year.
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TV show and show's main time period: "Arrested Development," mid-'00s
The entitled Bluth family find themselves without their riches and social standing as patriarch George Bluth Sr. is arrested for fraud. The dysfunctional family now turns to its only sane member, Michael Bluth, to rescue them. Still, they're not afraid to live beyond their means in posh Newport Beach, California, from George Bluth Sr. hiding $250,000 in the Bluth banana stand to Lindsay and Tobias purchasing a lavish home despite having no money to pay for it.
TV show and show's main time period: "Girls," early 2010s
Even after well-off 20-something Hannah Horvath's parents cut her off, she still manages to live in a cushy Brooklyn apartment on a GQ writer's salary of an estimated $49,679 per year at the time, according to Glassdoor. By the time the show ends, she's working as a professor. But without tenure, she's not guaranteed a salary or health and other benefits.
TV show and show's main time period: "Glee," early 2010s
After leaving McKinley High for the Big Apple, college students and part-time diner employees Rachel and Kurt could somehow afford an enormous loft in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, where the median rent for a studio was $2,353 in 2014. Maybe the "Glee" characters' combined three dads were a big help when it came time to foot the rent bill.
TV show and show's main time period: "Seinfeld," late '80s-early '90s
"Seinfeld" is often marketed as a show about nothing, but at least most of the characters have a job—unlike Cosmo Kramer. Despite never having a stable income, he managed to live alone in an apartment on New York City's Upper West Side, which Esquire estimates would have cost around $2,560 per month in the '90s.
TV show and show's main time period: "New Girl," early 2010s
The average LA bartender makes $45,686 per year as of September 2022. Seeing as "New Girl" character Nick Miller lives in a loft with three roommates, his lifestyle makes a bit more sense. But given that he stuffs his bills in a box to avoid dealing with them, it's safe to say he's still living beyond his means.
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TV show and show's main time period: "2 Broke Girls," early 2010s
Despite its series title, roommates Max and Carolina managed to live well on their server wages (around $42,272 per year on average in New York City as of 2022). The duo lives in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, where the average two-bedroom apartment costs $4,575 as of December 2022.
TV show and show's main time period: "The Big Bang Theory," late 2000s
Although renowned physicists Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter had to room together as working adults, Cheesecake Factory waitress Penny managed to live alone in the same Pasadena, California, apartment building. The average Cheesecake Factory employee makes $14.10 an hour—but maybe she gets really good tips?
TV show and show's main time period: "Pretty Little Liars," late '00s
With seemingly no source of income, the mysterious stalker A managed to torment the friend group at the heart of "Pretty Little Liars" pretty well. From torture equipment to an elaborately constructed life-size dollhouse, A does much better for herself than one would expect.
TV show and show's main time period: "Parks and Recreation," late '00s
How did low-ranking Pawnee, Indiana, government official Tom Haverford manage to stake his money in expensive startups like the Snakehole Lounge and Entertainment 720? In 2013, the average local government salary in Indiana was just $42,227. You've got to wonder how much debt this guy is in!
TV show and show's main time period: "Gilmore Girls," late '90s
Sure, single mom Lorelai Gilmore managed to save some money while living at the Dragonfly Inn rent-free when her daughter Rory was young. But given that the average salary of a general hotel manager is just over $59,000 as of December 2022, Lorelai being able to afford her house's mortgage as well as a seemingly endless supply of coffee and takeout seems like a stretch.
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