There's a new trend in reality TV shows: the money makeover, or, as Oprah Winfrey calls it, the debt diet.

Here's the formula: find families up to their eyeballs in debt. The more outlandish their spending, the better.

Oprah, for example, is checking in regularly on Lisa and Steven Bradley. They make $102,000 (U.S.) a year, but they're $170,000 in debt.

The Bradleys own five cars. They spend $100 a day on takeout food. Lisa doesn't like to cook or wash dishes.

Then, assign each family a personal money coach. Cut up their credit cards and make them live on cash, so they'll learn to be more frugal.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade, host of the Life Network show Till Debt Do Us Part, has a message for a couple of compulsive spenders.

"You're drowning in debt, so I'm drowning your credit cards," she says.

Glug, glug. She throws their credit cards into the family's aquarium.

Finally, analyze the family dynamics that lead to overdrawn bank accounts.

"You can't say no, can you?" asks Ayse Hogan, host of the W Network's show Maxed Out, to a mother who has lent $50,000 to an adult daughter for hair, nails and clothes.

Reality shows are no fun without conflict. You have to show people fighting with each other.

"I think she's lying about a number of things," says Jean Chatzky, the Money magazine journalist who moved in with Lisa and Steve Bradley to dig them out of trouble.

"I'm going to call her on it, because unless she's honest with me, I can't help her."

Chatzky finds that Lisa has spent $284 in cash twice her $140 weekly allowance on a new dress for her 12-year-old daughter.

"Your image is a lie," she tells Lisa. "You don't want your daughter to grow up feeling like she needs things to make her happy.

"When we shop you've got to hear this when we shop, we are shopping to fill a void in ourselves."

Vaz-Oxlade, a seasoned personal finance writer, comes across as a stern nanny. She warns spouses they're heading for divorce unless they can agree on spending and saving.

Wendy, a new mother, wants to stay home with her baby.

"You can't afford it," Vaz-Oxlade says, asking the new mom why she doesn't put up signs offering to clean people's houses.

The suggestion makes Wendy furious. And who can blame her? She used to work in an office. She's not a cleaning lady.

Vaz-Oxlade hands over a $5,000 cheque each week to couples who follow her rules. Wendy and Dan get only $3,000: they didn't listen closely enough.

Hogan, host of Maxed Out, has a more sympathetic demeanour. But she, too, uses shock tactics to get across her message.

"You have to be financially independent, to stand on your own two feet," Hogan tells Aurora, who works only 10 hours a week and calls Mom every time she runs short of cash.

She escorts Aurora fashionably dressed, hair freshly done to a dairy farm and makes her milk cows for a few hours.

The message: work isn't easy, but you can't spend appropriately unless you know what it means to earn money.

Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime TV, is one of America's richest women. But she was poor once.

"The truth is, I remember every salary I ever made, beginning with $10,000 and all the way up to $250,000 before it got crazy," she tells Chatzky.

If you earn $102,000 a year, as the Bradleys do, you can't spend $102,000, Oprah points out. If you keep your eye on the gross, rather than the net, you'll always be in debt.

This is basic advice, found in every personal finance book ever written. Still, it comes alive on TV.

There's nothing like seeing real people exposing their flaws, real people explaining how they hide bills and ignore what's paid in credit-card interest, to fool themselves into believing they're in good shape.

Stanley Kershman, an Ottawa bankruptcy lawyer, is the author of Put Your Debt on a Diet (Wiley, $26.95). He likes Oprah's debt diet, as well as the Canadian money makeover shows.

"Sure, they have outrageous stories. But if they didn't, there would be no sizzle," he says.

Overspending and the denial of debt have stayed in the shadows for too long.

"Reality shows, even if they're skewed and give only partial solutions, still recognize the problem, and that's good," he adds.

If these wild spenders can follow a budget, maybe you can, too. That's a good reason to check out these programs, at least once.


Ellen Roseman's column appears Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. You can reach her by writing Business c/o Toronto Star, 1 Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6; by phone at 416-945-8687; by fax at 416-865-3630; or at erosema@thestar.ca by email.