It’s the TV series that made Bill Cosby a household name, gave rise to a popular spinoff, and made a whole generation of American kids if not color blind, then a whole lot more open-minded than our parents. I’m talking about “The Cosby Show,” that quintessential 1980s sitcom about Heathcliff Huxtable, his wife Clair, and their five children.
The show was rife with lessons. It’s creators get the most credit for openly talking about race and showing an African-American family in situations many white Americans – at the time – thought were only available to them. But “The Cosby Show” also taught me a lot about personal finance: everything from frugality to managing finances to money morals.
In the series’ very first episode (Season 1, Episode 1), we’re introduced to the Huxtable clan, including only-son Theo. This episode set the stage for Theo’s multiple financial issues over the next eight seasons. In the episode, we learn that Theo has been pulling D’s at school – something that is completely unacceptable to his father (an OB/GYN) and his mother (a lawyer). We learn early on that the Huxtables are a highly-educated clan that takes academics seriously:
Theo: You’re a doctor and Mom’s a lawyer, and you’re both successful in everything and that’s great! But maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life. If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less, because you’re my dad. So rather than feeling disappointed because I’m not like you, maybe you should accept who I am and love me anyway, because I’m your son.
Cliff: Theo… that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! No wonder you get D’s in everything!
In a later episode, we learn that Theo is actually dyslexic, which has been the cause for so many of his academic issues; but in this episode, Cliff lays down the law that the family expects more out of their only boy.
Lesson Learned: Getting ahead in life starts in school. Failing to earn good grades as a child can set the stage for bad habits later on in life.
You Are Not Your Parents’ Money
In Season 3 (Episode 8), Vanessa – the Huxtables’ second-youngest daughter – tries to buy her way into the cool crowd by flouting her family’s money. It’s only after Vanessa tells the cheerleaders at her school that her mother paid a large amount of money for a piece of art that she’s accepted onto the squad. But Cliff soon sets his daughter straight about the family’s finances – and hers specifically – saying, “Your mother and I are rich; you have nothing. ”
Lesson Learned: Children need to create their own paths in life. While parents may be able to establish a firm financial footing for children, it’s ultimately up to the children themselves to forge their own financial identities.
Frugalness Can Go Too Far
When Cliff tries to repair a broken tile in a shower stall in Season 4 (Episode 17), he thinks it will be a simple project. But as his lackluster DIY skills prove, the situation quickly gets out of hand, requiring a full-fledged bathroom overhaul. Cliff quickly moves on from the problematic tiles, deducing the real problem is the pipes, and starts ripping into the walls and floors to fix them. Clair worries he’s going to destroy the whole house, and begs him to hire a professional.
Lesson Learned: Step away from the hacksaw! Cliff – like so many husbands and fathers out there – thinks he can tackle any DIY project simply because “he’s a man.” This episode proves that trying to save money by doing a project yourself won’t always save you money – and can sometimes lead to even pricier problems.
I’m Moving Out
Most young couples start their married lives in small, dingy apartments – and the Huxtables’ oldest daughter, Sondra, and her husband are no exceptions. In Season 5 (Episode 4), we see the inside of Sondra and Elvin’s love nest, where they’re preparing to bring home their twins in just a few months.
The apartment is a mess. It’s cramped, in a horrible location, and requires dozens of major repairs in order to make it safe for two babies. Cliff and Clair urge the young couple to move out – and up – to something bigger and better, but the couple claims they can’t afford it. Cliff offers the soon-to-be parents a loan in order to help them out, and although reluctant at first, Sondra and Elvin eventually take it.
Lesson Learned: Offering – and accepting – help from a family member can be difficult, especially when money is involved. Although Sondra and Elvin didn’t want to take the money, they realized that Cliff and Clair had the best intentions. In a situation like this, it’s important to recognize both the lender and borrower’s motives, as well as set a timetable for repayment of the loan.
Your Kids Are Actually Listening
Over the years, Cliff and Clair had their fair share of problems with Theo and his money-making schemes, so when he comes to them in Season 5 (Episode 26) and asks them for $1,500 for a summer trip to Egypt, they just assume he’s once again up to no good and shoot down his request.
But Theo’s been listening to his parents’ advice over the years about finances and his education. He knows this summer adventure will give him insights into another part of the world, how people live, and his ancestors’ roots. In other words, he knows his parents $1,500 would be a sound investment. So, he asks his teacher to help him convince his parents that this is a wise decision for everybody.
Lesson Learned: Your kids are listening to what you say and, sometimes, it pays off. As parents, we love saying “no,” but sometimes we have to realize when to say yes.
Reader, what are some of your favorite moments from “The Cosby Show”?