The Economics of Friends

September 28, 2011 in Editorial, Top

Friends is widely regarded to be one of the best television shows in history. With constant reruns in the United States and the rest of the world it’s clear that the show still has a significant cultural impact. The series which aired from 1994 to 2004 features the lives of six friends living in Manhattan. The show follows them through the tumultuous twenties and early thirties of dating, marriage, divorce, kids, and career changes.

How would the six fare living in Manhattan in today’s day and age? Centives decided to find out. To estimate the income of each of the characters Centives used data from the New York Bureau of Labour Statistics. Rachel is unsurprisingly the poorest member of the group. As a waitress she would expect to make $19,570 a year. If we classify Joey as a part time actor and assume that he makes $26.95 an hour then he would make $28,028 a year. This is a couple of hundred dollars less than what Monica would make as a cook at a restaurant ($28,280). At the New York Museum of Prehistoric History Ross would make $49,590.

What is perhaps most surprising is that as a massage therapist Phoebe ranks second among the friends in terms of income and would be expected to make $50,060 a year. In the pilot episode she is seen playing the guitar for change in the NYC subways. Yet there is ample reason to believe that Pheobe understates her income. Phoebe claims to hate corporate massage chains; yet it turns out she works for one of them “for the cash” and that clients pay $100 per session (plus tip). In other situations she’s more than happy to use her tortured childhood as an excuse for things as trivial as a blueberry muffin. It is within the realm of possibility that she was only pretending to be poor the entire time in order to win sympathy from her group. She is, after all, the character whose personal life we know the least about.

Chandler’s hatred for his job is surpassed only by the amount of money he makes from it. With an annual salary of $68,440 he is by far the richest of the six.

Ten years later, in the show’s final season some of the six have moved up a few income brackets. Chandler is the only one whose salary very slightly decreased when he went from being a database administrator to an advertising sales agent. Phoebe and Joey end the show in the same positions that they started at. Going from cook to head chef has increased Monica’s salary by 44%. Ross almost doubles his salary when he goes from working at the museum to being a professor at New York University. The big winner though is Rachel who goes from being the poorest of the six to being the richest. The progression from waitress to senior executive at Ralph Lauren means that she ends up making five times as much as what she did when she first started her career.

One of the most common criticisms made about the TV show is that it is unrealistic in its depiction of the type of living standards that the six Friends enjoy. Would it be conceivable for the six of them to live the type of lifestyle they do in today’s era? With the exception of Monica the Friends change apartments for an extended period at least once. But most of their residences have some features in common. They are almost all located in Greenwich Village. And they almost always have two bedrooms and one bathroom. Most of the time each apartment is occupied by two roommates.

According to Zillow, a property value website, in the past twelve months, the average monthly rent of the five cheapest listed properties that had two bedrooms and one bathroom in Greenwich Village was $2,200. Assuming that the rent is divided equally between the two roommates, this comes out to $13,200 per year per person. All six of the Friends could afford this. However for some such as Joey, Rachel, and, Monica in the first season this leaves very little money for food, transportation, and other living expenses.

The estimate of the rent is also an average of the five cheapest properties available on Zillow. The accommodations of the Friends are generally much nicer. That would suggest that Centives has underestimated how much they had to pay in rent. On the other hand though the TV show mentions that at least Monica’s apartment benefitted from rent control. That would indicate that Centives overestimated the amount that they paid in rent. Whichever case is true the approximations provided here work well as ball park figures.

The stunning career progression of characters such as Rachel might be unrealistic. Or perhaps it harkens back to an earlier era, an era in which the American dream of upward income mobility seemed to be within reach, and it wasn’t absurd to think that a waitress could become anything she wanted. And perhaps no amount of legal loopholes could justify the relative luxury that the Friends find themselves in. But each episode was quick to remind us that no one told you life was gonna be this way, and even if your expectations end up clashing with reality, your friends will be there for you.

It’d be difficult to find people who disagree.

Follow Centives on Twitter