Money Lessons from “Downton Abbey”

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Warning: This post may contain spoilers.

The hard-working servants and pampered residents of “Downton Abbey” have returned for season four of the popular period drama. As the new season unfolds, Mary grieves over Matthew’s unexpected death, Matthew’s former valet Mr. Moseley finds himself out of a job, and Lord Grantham struggles to keep the estate afloat despite death duties and gambling debts.

Here’s a look at some of the money issues these characters face.

Financial Planning
The Crawleys were born into wealth and privilege so they’re not accustomed to working hard, tracking their spending, or saving for a rainy day. In season one, the Earl puts all his wife Cora’s money into Canadian railroad stocks and nearly wipes out the family fortune. Had he chosen a more diversified portfolio, the family’s wealth might have been more secure.

“They don’t seem to have any financial goals or planning at all,” says Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and author of the new book “Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made.” “The Earl just puts all his money into one thing. He just seems unrealistic and entitled, which seems irresponsible to me given how many people are relying on him. If they’d had credit cards back then, they’ll all be maxed out.”

The Crawley family doesn’t set aside money for emergencies and when emergencies pop up, they wait for an inheritance or an outsider to swoop in and save the day. “It’s like they’re just sitting around waiting to get lucky,” Harzog says. “Instead of empowering their kids with financial knowledge, they keep trying to bring money into the family [by marrying off the daughters].”

Estate Planning
Matthew’s death brings up thorny issues around estate planning and the future of Downton. Although a lawyer who understood the importance of a will, Matthew died without one, leaving a newborn son George and grieving wife Mary to fend for themselves. Lord Grantham later discovers a letter that Matthew wrote as a placeholder for a will expressing his wish for Mary to be his sole heiress. Still, Mary may have to sell some land to pay the death duties on Matthew’s death, so life insurance might have helped cover those expenses and maintain the family’s lifestyle (though it would have diffused some of the drama that makes the show so addictive).

“When you have a large inheritance, whether it is something like Downton Abbey or the family business, succession planning is important and you need to make sure that there’s a way to pay the estate taxes,” says Danielle B. Mayoras, an attorney and author of Trial & Heirs. “Even when Mary was pregnant, it would be wonderful if he would have taken care of estate planning.”

Just as the Crawley family struggles to maintain Downton Abbey, Mayoras says many heirs unfortunately struggle to keep up inherited properties today. “If you give the house but you’re not giving additional income or principle, it needs to be realistic about how the beneficiary is going to afford to keep the property,” she says.

Careers
While the family upstairs lives in denial of their financial realities, the servants below stairs face their own struggles. Families had fewer servants in post-WWI England and new technology could make some of the servants obsolete if they don’t keep up with the times. When Mrs. Patmore the cook sees Daisy the kitchen maid using a new electric mixer, she panics that Daisy could replace her and secretly tries out the mixer—with disastrous results. Vicki Salemi, career and HR expert, speaker and author of “Big Career in the Big City,” says this scene “underscored the importance of staying on top of, in this case, modern technology.”

Mr. Moseley could have used an emergency fund for when he unexpectedly lost his job and fell into debt. Moseley hasn’t had any luck finding new positions as a butler, so Salemi suggests transferring his skills into another position. “One of the best ways to make the transition into a new area is to look at your strengths and connect the dots,” she says. “Customer service? Check. Time manager? Check. Project manager? Technically, check. As he explores new options where there’s a need and demand for his services, he can always get training in a specific area in order to learn new skills and become more marketable.” His temporary role as a replacement footman could also help him work his way back to Downton so long as his pride doesn’t get in the way.

Miss O’Brien’s departure leaves a vacancy for a new lady’s maid, which the scheming Edna is all too eager to fill. Edna had previously worked at Downton but lost her position after making advances at Tom Branson. She lies about her reason for leaving and uses a reference written under duress to wheedle her way back into the house. “Aside from the fact that it’s a bold move, faking references or anything on your resume like a faux job, title, or employment dates for a potential employer is not a wise idea,” Salemi says. “What happens when your future employer calls the so-called references? It’s game over in an instant.”

 

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