The premise of the show, as you might recall, was to throw three well-known financial gurus (David Bach, Jean Chatzky, and Glinda Bridgforth) at three struggling families (the Egglestons, the Bradleys, and the Widlunds) and see what happens.
If you missed Oprah's follow-up show a few weeks ago, things turned out about like this:
When the Debt Diet kicked off, the Egglestons were (we're told) a few signatures away from bankruptcy. Their household income was $92k, but their debts totaled around $115k.
With David Bach as their pilot, the Egglestons made some progress: They paid off $26k in debt, boosted their income by $19k, bumped their credit scores by 100 points, and finagled lower rates from their credit-card lenders.
Hooray for them, I guess. It's a start.
The Bradleys household income was $102k, and their debts $170k, when author Jean Chatzky stepped in to pull the parachute.
With Chatzky's guidance, the Bradleys grew their income by $26k (second jobs and overtime) and, as Dave Ramsey would say, "sold a lot o' stuff." They paid off $50k worth of debt, got their spending under control (as best I can tell), and generally got their financial act together.
Put simply, the Widlunds tanked it. Hard.
Apparently, our heroes Mark and Marnie fell off the proverbial wagon about six months in. They stopped taking phone calls from Ms. Bridgforth and generally ignored the Debt Diet Principles altogether. And now, one year later, their debt has increased by a mere $37,000.
But hey — they did have a few minute successes. They somehow managed to refi their home (now there's a scrapbook-worthy hurdle for you!). And they boosted their income by $15k. Which, in my opinion, just makes their backsliding all that much worse.
All this, despite the assistance of a recognized financial author's guidance, and whatever other "perks" came by way of the appearance on Oprah.
Congratulations, Widlunds. You were presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, and you bit it. You are, put simply, dismal.
One of the things that bugs me about shows like this is that we can't see the target families' financials in any decent detail. How much of their debt is mortgage debt? Auto loans? Credit cards? These things matter, and dang it, I'm nosy. I want to know. Saying that someone has $115k in debt is one thing ... and saying that someone has $115k in debt, of which $60k is on credit cards, in something else entirely.
Another thing I'd like to be honest about: Getting your financial act together when you're in an Oprah-created spotlight is commendable; I can't argue that. But doing it on your own, when only your dog and your guppies (and maybe your blog readers) are watching — that's what truly earns my respect and admiration. You see this latter progress taking place at places like Mapgirl's Fiscal Challenge, Blogging Away Debt, One Million and Beyond, and Debt Hater.
The families highlighted on shows like Oprah's "Debt Diet," while their financial positions may be appreciably awful, have access to resources that the rest of us can only dream about. I would also argue that spotlighting troubled households with annual incomes in the $80k to $120k area is a convenient way to overlook a much larger faction — those families with hefty debts who lack the sizeable income to "redistribute" to better ends. Television viewers don't want to see failure, so this is a common way that shows like this set themselves up for success. They feature "average" American families who already have certain characteristics (in this case, incomes) that aren't "average" at all.