Do people only watch Downton Abbey because it was a glimpse into a bygone era? A culture of opulence, eloquent speaking, and a glimpse into the lifestyles of the wealthy. Whatever reason viewers followed every move of the Crawley house, any viewer can be taught several financial lessons from the series.
For those who have not watched the first minute of Downton Abbey, I will admit you are in for a treat. My co-workers told me not to watch Downton because it was indescribably addicting. I avoided it like the plague until the final season aired several months ago. My wife had to fill me in on some of the backstories & we have committed to watch all the previous seasons.
SPOILER ALERT: This post will not contain any spoiler alerts to how the series ends. There might be some spoiler alerts for some of the previous seasons. Mostly, I will try to focus on season 6 (the final season that just aired in early 2016).
Lesson #1: Prepare For The Future
One of the common themes in all the episodes is that the times are changing. Season 6 takes place in 1925, a decade that sees the ascendance of the “horseless carriage” & the decline of large, artistocratic estates similar to Downton due to the decline of agraian estates. In relation to American history, think of the plantation system that made George Washington & Thomas Jefferson wealthy but eventually left their heirs saddled with debt due to changing economic conditions. As the final season progresses, the Crawley family that resides upstairs in the mansion, are patriarchs of their local town and the future of their own estate becomes more doubtful with each episode.
A fear among all the servant staff is the threat of layoffs because of rumors that the Crawley estate is losing money, like all the other country estates that have recently been auctioned off. During Season 6, several large estates similar to Downton go bankrupt and are auctioned off, the Crawleys are advised by the former aristocrats to get out before they have nothing left to sell off.
Another Downton staff member applies for various butler positions at other estates. Several of these estates he interviews at only have a head butler who does every task, instead of only coordinating & attending to the needs of the house master. The Downton estate is one of the few fully-staffed estates where each staff member has a unique job (circa 1890). Where footmen await visitors at the house entrance, while more senior members attend to the needs of individual family members. In the new era, the wealthy are starting to dress themselves & brush their own hair. Why? Money, or the lack of it.
To quell the fears of Downton's staff, the family must manage the estate to have enough income to pay the staff & support the lavish lifestyle that is a daily staple of the Crawley family. One of their income sources is a tree farm & they must make a decision to keep or sell it in order to help pay the bills. To further hit home how the economic landscape is changing, the family mentions how most country estates (like Downton) are selling their London residences because they can no longer afford them.
To continue on how the characters prepare for the future, both the Crawleys and their staff pursue side-hustles outside the estate. Lady Edith Crawley is an editor for a ladies magazine in London, instead of living on the country estate waiting for a potential suitor. And to show the emergence of the middle class, several of the staff members pursue side income using their skills and knowledge they have picked up through the years to earn extra income, in case their “days of service” come to an end.
21st Century Application
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It's a quote you have probably heard before & for good reason. Things are always changing, but life is always the same. The concept of large country estates are foreign to us, but we face our own challenges of job insecurity. In the 21st century, the employment landscape is being changed with automation & artificial intelligence. Every year, computers or machines are replacing humans with certain tasks in nearly every career field.
The house staff were appalled at an electric hairdryer in 1925. Some of the servants viewed it as the demise of personal maids. Now the ladies upstairs could dry & brush their own hair without the assistance of a maid.
Technology has progressed a lot in 90 years, but fears of job insecurity are still present. While your father might have made a living repairing typewriters, most people under the age of 20 have no clue what one is. They probably think it's a smartphone app of some sort. Certain livelihoods are timeless, but each future generation will earn an income in a different manner than their predecessors.
All that changes is the shade of lipstick on the pig.
Lesson #2: Don't Bet It All On Sure Things
This lesson comes from an earlier season when Lord Grantham, master of the house, bets the estate fortune on a Canadian railroad that was supposed to be a “no-lose” investment. It unexpectedly goes bust & his estate goes broke. Only by a generous stroke of compassion from another family member, is the estate able to be saved.
21st Century Application
There still “too good to fail” investments out there & real life isn't always a “Hallmark movie.” Any financial adviser worth their salt preaches investment diversification. You might expect Apple to continue making the best digital devices available or Exxon Mobil to be a steady stream of income as long as people fill their vehicles with gasoline. Well, both companies have had some economic hiccups recently. I'm not saying either company will go bust, but you don't want to put all your money in one company. Spread it out among different companies and asset classes.
Lesson #3: Spouses Can Influence The Wealth Pendulum
A recurring theme among all the seasons is how the wealth potential of a potential spouse can make you rich (or poor). The master of the house, Lord Grantham, married his wife only because of her fortune, so the family could maintain their social status. Without this marriage, Downton would have shut its doors long ago and no tv series would have been produced.
As the seasons progress, the various family members court potential suitors with the dilemma of choosing between love or money. Some choose love, others choose money. I can't giveaway anymore details without spoiling any plots.
21st Century Application
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing your soulmate. One of the topics discussed before marriage should be money management. Marriage is about trust & teamwork. It's hard to accomplish those two if a spouse does not have fiscal discipline and doesn't adhere to a budget, while the other is a pinchpenny. I'm not saying to only marry somebody who can stick to a budget, but if you cannot have joint accounts for fear of going bankrupt, are you happily married?
Another way this lesson is applicable to today is what I call income diversification. Two is greater than one. Each spouse can use their talents to both earn income to tackle debt, save for the future, or have a better quality of life.
In my last job, I made enough money that allowed my wife to not work at all. This also meant a 70-hour+ work week so I was usually only home to eat meals and sleep. Now my wife works two afternoons a week & I work fewer hours. We don't make as much, but she enjoys what she does & I am more able to pursue my talents & passions than with my previous job.
Having a spouse is also a form of job insurance. If I get sick or injured and cannot work, my wife can help pick up some slack so we are at least making some money. Marriage is designed to help people grow stronger, not weaker, in every aspect of life.
Is Downton Abbey Antiquated?
No. Although society has changed in the 90+ years that the Crawleys lived, we can still learn lots from them. Such as how to act sophisticated at social gatherings and how (not) to act financially responsible.
So, I encourage you to check out the show and see what else you can learn from the various characters. If nothing you might enjoy a show that is nostalgic, has substance, and full of twists & turns.
Are you a fan of Downton Abbey? What financial lessons has it taught you? What other life lessons have you learned from watching period dramas.
Thank For Reading,
Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.