I'm one of the millions who watched the now-famous episode of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in which John Carpenter, a cocky IRS employee, won $1 million.
I'm ashamed to say the television quiz show has an intoxicating effect on me. There are seemingly easy answers to questions that lead to easy money that leads to dreams about Easy Street.
On that street, I could retire early. I could send my kids to college worry-free. I could help my sister get the house she so desperately wants.
I could buy my nephew a car, with brakes that work. I could have someone paint my kitchen without worrying that the money could be put to better use. I could pay off my mortgage. I could pay off all my bills.
I could finally be free--debt-free.
But then I realize it's all a dream, and I'm just sitting on my sofa letting a television show lure me into believing the almost impossible--that luck and a head full of trivia will bring me a million dollars. All that dreaming makes me feel lousy. Disappointed. Dissatisfied. Ungrateful.
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" bothers me.
From the very start it has been about the money. At first, if you wanted to get on the show, you had to call a 900 number and pay $1.50. That price tag would stop me from calling. Since then, the producer has eliminated the fee in an effort to broaden the contestant pool. It seems not enough women and minorities were buying into their dream world.
ABC introduced American audiences to the British-inspired "Millionaire" in August and has lured large audiences with promises of awarding a boatload of bucks. And it has. One contestant won $500,000, another $125,000. In its most recent week, the show averaged about 24 million viewers nightly. This kind of entertainment plays into the sense of despair that the only way to become wealthy is to strike it rich.
"The creators of 'Millionaire' are geniuses because they convince people that they are smart enough to win lots of money," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. "But like winning the lottery, very few people have the opportunity. This just encourages the get-rich-quick mentality."
In fact, a recent study commissioned by the Consumer Federation and Primerica, a money-management and insurance subsidiary of Citigroup Inc., found that a substantial number of Americans--27 percent--think playing the lottery or winning a sweepstakes is their best chance to obtain half a million dollars or more in their lifetimes.
Those surveyed also overestimated the wealth of others and underestimated their personal ability to build wealth through patient saving and investing.
When asked how much $50 invested each week for 40 years (at a 9 percent annual yield) would produce, those surveyed were way off: The median answer amount was $239,400. Yet, this saving would lead to an accumulation of $1,026,853, to be exact. Brobeck says most middle-income Americans are capable of accumulating a million dollars in assets by saving and investing over time.
But saving over 40 years sounds tedious. It's easier to dream that regular folks, like Carpenter, can become millionaires overnight.
Perhaps we're headed for a revival of the quiz-show mania of the '50s--which ended in scandal. Fox network has launched "Greed," a game show with a $2 million top prize.
These newer types of programs aren't like "Jeopardy," which is about the questions. The questions for shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" are almost perfunctory. They are just another lottery in disguise. "I think these game shows pick up on what is already being promoted by government-approved lotteries--that you don't have to save and invest, just gamble," said Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "If we want to glorify greed, then there's no better way than to have these kinds of game shows." In the end such games make people feel like losers, says Grey.
That's how I felt after watching "Millionaire." I felt discontented with what I have. Then I looked around and realized I have a lot more than most and I didn't get it by playing the lottery or going on a game show. I worked for it. I saved.
Watching Carpenter become a newly minted millionaire (at least before taxes) made me feel a little envious, and I don't like feeling that way. This type of entertainment can't be good for me if it makes me feel bad for not having more.
Who wants to be a millionaire?
We all do. But for most of us, wealth happens one day at time.
I'm looking for stories for the holidays on the best gift you ever got or gave that didn't cost a penny. Send brief entries by Dec. 13 to Michelle Singletary, The Color of Money, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail to singletarym@ washpost.com.