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4 financial lessons from 'Downton Abbey'

The characters in the hugely popular Masterpiece Classic series could have used some better financial advice.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 16, 2013 12:28PM

This post comes from Richard Barrington at partner site logoThe Masterpiece Classic series "Downton Abbey" has become a surprise hit, providing millions of Americans with a Sunday night escape to a more elegant era. As a side benefit, "Downton Abbey" also happens to teach some valuable lessons about money.


A scene from UK drama 'Downton Abbey' is displayed on an iPad (© LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)In a way, the show is all about money: the contrast between the haves and the have-nots, the role money plays in marriage, and the struggles of wealthy people to hang onto their money.


Here are four key financial lessons to take from "Downton Abbey":


1. Don't tie up too much wealth in illiquid assets.

Downton Abbey is the name of the massive estate inhabited by the Crawley family. The land and buildings are no doubt worth a large amount of money, but the estate also requires a healthy cash flow because of its large staff, upkeep for opulent furnishings and regular high-society functions. Robert Crawley, the head of the family, has already had to marry into money to retain Downton Abbey, and as the series goes on, the financial challenge of hanging onto the estate is an ongoing source of tension.


In the modern day, too many people have this problem, albeit on a much smaller scale. If you cut your budget too closely when buying a house, so that every available dollar goes into the mortgage, you'll find yourself caught short at the very first emergency. Unless you also have the option of marrying into money, you may find yourself without the cash flow necessary to maintain your most valuable asset.


2. Don't concentrate too much of your portfolio in one investment.

Crawley compounds his problems by investing the bulk of the family's money in a Canadian railroad venture. When that venture fails, the loss threatens to force the Crawleys to give up Downton Abbey. Then and now, diversification should not just be an abstract concept -- it should be an ironclad rule of every investment program.

3. Never invest in something that everyone says can't lose.

Crawley's unwise investment was spurred on by popular opinion that railroad ventures were sure things. Between the dot-coms and the real-estate market, a more recent generation has certainly seen its share of can't-miss investments fail. The problem isn't just that popular opinion is often wrong; the real flaw in these situations is that if an investment is already wildly popular by the time you get in, you'll probably pay too much for it.


4. Always discuss financial decisions with your spouse.

When the railroad venture fails, Crawley faces the task of telling his wife about the massive loss. This is all the more uncomfortable because it was actually her family money that he has lost. If you discuss major financial decisions with your spouse up front, you not only won't have to surprise your spouse with bad news, but you might just get talked out of a foolish decision.


Viewed from a 21st century perspective, the "Downton Abbey" characters' motivations seem quaintly old-fashioned, and Robert Crawley's decisions in particular seem maddeningly naive. Still, even in the information age, people continue to make decisions about money that are ill-informed, destructive and just plain careless. The characters of "Downton Abbey" could have used some better financial advice, but there is still plenty to learn from their examples today.


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Jan 16, 2013 6:52PM

Remember when the creator, writer, producer of this series was acting  (as Killwillie) in " Monarch of the Glen"? Similar plot line, similar struggles...maybe these troubles all just come with owning castles and trying to preserve the glorius past. Lovely story though...good acting and far better than the violent tripe on US tv.




Jan 16, 2013 6:03PM
Let's also not forget this was when taxes in UK were about 5%.  Following WW I, they went to about 70%.  Same thing here, when Vanderbilt built Biltmore in the same era.  Taxes were waaay low.  What does this say about economics??
Jan 16, 2013 7:29PM
All of this, of course is a copy of a much more realistic British Series, Upstairs Downstairs, which was on the air from 1971 to 1975. If you like Downton Abbey, go watch Upstairs Downstairs to see how the original story lines were played.
Jan 16, 2013 6:35PM
Mick! I hadn't gotten to those points in the story yet. I've spoiled it for myself by reading your post. Sigh. Oh well.
Jan 16, 2013 4:35PM
The Earl is Downton comes across as a bumbling fool.  Every decision he makes about his family is overturned when a daughter pouts.  He thinks he should be a high-ranking officer in the military during WW1 despite no expertise and pouts himself when he's given a ceremonial position.  His American wife, Duchess Cora, has much more common sense and -even after the Earl blows her inheritance on the failed railroad- notes they can move into a smaller -but still HUGE- mansion they already own and name it "Downton Place."  Of course, daughter Mary -who will be the next Duchess of Grantham- pouts that "the Duchess of Grantham resides at Downton Abbey" and schemes to have money her husband (and cousin and future Earl) inherits wasted on maintaining the virtual castle.  And, of course, her father the Earl gives in and arranges joint ownership with his sucessor.  The happiest of the three daughters is Sybil, who virtually ran away to marry the family's Irish chauffeur.  They'll probably have more money than the rest of the greedy, foolish family by the series' end!
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