5 Money Lessons from Mad Men

On Sunday, AMC’s hit sixties drama Mad Men returns for season six. Millions of fans have watched Don, Rodger, Joan, and company coping with the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, and the Cold War. Although times have changed dramatically since the ‘60s, there’s a timeless quality to these characters’ mistakes in love, life, and money. Here’s a look at some of the financial lessons they teach us.

  • Know your worth

What do Peggy, Joan, and Harry have in common? They all identified the unique value they bring to the company and leveraged that to get ahead. Peggy has a knack for crafting snappy ad copy and understanding female consumers, a skill that her male counterparts lack. Harry observes the growing role of TV in advertising and positions himself to become head of the media department. Joan has the chance to, er, win over a major client and instead of taking the cash offered by the partners, she demands 5% of the company and becomes a partner. Joan also keeps the agency running on a daily basis, making her indispensable even before she made partner. Recognizing your strengths and gaining skills that are in-demand can help negotiate you promotions and higher pay.

  • Live within your means

The agency nearly goes bust when it expands too quickly and loses a key client. In the end of season five, the partners forgo Christmas bonuses so that the other employees can get bonuses. They also have a habit of getting swept up in the excitement of a new client before the deal is finalized and of spending money extravagantly to keep up appearances. Bottom line: never spend more than you make and always keep expectations realistic. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, as they say.

  • Discuss money with your spouse

None of the marriages depicted on Mad Men are particularly egalitarian. The ad exec husbands dismiss their wives’ feelings because they hold the power as the breadwinners. Few of these couples discuss business matters or household budgets, so many of the wives spend with abandon even as the agency is floundering. The most tragic example is the British junior partner Lane Pryce and his wife Rebecca. Drowning in debt from a large tax bill, Pryce gets caught embezzling money and returns home to find that Rebecca has bought a new Jaguar as a surprise for him. Broke and disgraced, Pryce takes his own life to avoid dealing with the financial and emotional fallout of his mistakes. One of the show’s main themes is that keeping secrets (as Don does with his identity for the first few seasons) will only come back to haunt you later.

  • Get a prenup

Several of the characters including Roger, Don, and Joan are divorced, which can drain both people’s finances. Divorce was still taboo in the sixties, but it’s more common now, and even some high-earning wives find themselves paying alimony to their husbands. Since Betty Draper remarries soon after divorcing Don and her new husband insists he’ll take care of her and the kids, she probably doesn’t get alimony, although Don may pay child support. Roger likely pays alimony to his ex-wives Jane and Mona, since he supported their lavish lifestyles while they were married. Nowadays, a prenuptial agreement (or a postnup) could have protected some of the money he brought to the marriage in the event of divorce. It also would have spurred pre-wedding conversations about money and how it should be managed (see #3).

  • Don’t buy into advertising hype

Although Don’s job is to create persuasive advertising concepts and pitch them to clients, he’s skeptical of consumer culture. As the other partners grow giddy at pitching the agency to Jaguar in the end of season five, Don remains unfazed. Understanding that much of branding is hype and assessing the product rather than the marketing around it can help you make more informed purchasing decisions.

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