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Top 10 Thriftiest TV Families

by Kim Potts, posted Apr 3rd 2011 12:01AM
Sure, TV land has always been filled with characters who live in impossibly large New York City apartments ('Friends' gang, we're looking at you!). But there are also TV types who represent their more modest salaries in a realistic way.

For example, no one could turn a lump of cheap meat into a hearty meal for a family of five like Roseanne Conner, and few look cuter clipping coupons than 'The Middle''s Frankie Heck. And, with our shaky economy these days, it was only a matter of time before reality TV caught up -- enter TLC's 'Extreme Couponing' (premieres Wed., April 6, 9PM ET).

In honor penny-pinching pioneers and frugal mamas everywhere, we proudly count down our 10 favorite thrifty primetime families.

'7th Heaven'
Cheap chic: Yeah, okay, the Camdens lived rent-free in a pretty swell house owned by the church where papa Eric was the reverend. But still ... mom Annie fed, clothed and managed to provide more than just the basics for her brood, which consisted of seven (seven!) kids. On a preacher's salary. She even put her nifty thrifty skills (not to mention several college degrees and some serious handywoman talents) to use when the church was in need of funds for repairs. And, despite the harried sked she led raising seven kiddies, she started her own muffin baking biz to earn extra cash, inspiring the entrepreneurial spirit in daughter Ruthie in one memorable episode.

'Malcolm in the Middle'
Cheap chic: Dad Hal was a low-paid cubicle dweller and mom Lois was a cash register jockey at the Lucky Aide discount store. And that did not provide enough income to raise their five rambunctious boys in anything even remotely resembling luxury. Hal and Lois and the rest of the fam were lucky just to be able to pay the bills and keep the boys fed and clothed (though, as younger bro Dewey lamented, a steady stream of hand me downs meant he never owned a pair of pants without holes or stains or funny smells). Still, strict mama Lois assured Malcolm it would all be worth it in the end, as she explained in the series finale that the reason she ruined his chance for a well-paying job was because he was meant to struggle, go to Harvard and eventually become the first President of the United States who would truly empathize with working class citizens like his family.

Cheap chic: Dan and Roseanne Conner were frequently unemployed and even more frequently broke, but that didn't stop them from raising their family with a lot of love and laughter. Even in the face of illnesses, family squabbles, the failure of Dan's dream motorcycle shop and daughter Becky's dashed dreams of going to college, Roseanne found a way to keep her family going with a little bit of creativity. Roseanne "accidentally" mailed the wrong checks to the wrong payees to buy herself some time with the bills, gave up what she wanted so Becky would have a new dress for a school dance and, in an episode that included a guest appearance by future Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, spilled the secrets to saving money on meatloaf and breakfast cereal. Yes, Roseanne always proved to be one of the all-time great boob tube domestic doyennes.

'The Middle'
Cheap chic: Mike Heck is the manager of a local quarry ... and was temporarily laid off after discovering dinosaur bones on the grounds. Wife Frankie Heck is a car salesperson ... actually, the least successful car salesperson at Ehlert Motors. Needless to say, money is tight in Casa Heck, which leads to some creative thinking on Frankie's part. She's filled a car with jelly beans for a counting contest she hoped would generate sales (and which didn't go as planned), tried to turn a rug shopping trip into a romantic getaway with Mike (which was thwarted by a sick kid) and got the family to give up cable TV to save money (turned out she and Mike missed it just as much as the kids did). All that makes this sitcom the sweetest and most realistic view of a blue collar family since the Conners rode off into the TV sunset.

'Desperate Housewives'
Cheap chic: Wisteria Lane wife and mother of five Lynette Scavo defines the term "tough cookie." She's been a stay-at-home mom and a working woman (with a boss from hell) while hubby Tom played Mr. Mom. She's supported Tom's dream of opening a pizza joint and didn't divorce him when it turned out he'd fathered a child, Kayla -- and owed a slew of back child support -- before she married him. And then she continued to stretch her family's finances even further when Kayla's mom died and the Scavos took her into their home, just before Lynette was diagnosed with cancer and needed to borrow money for treatment. Need more? The Scavos also had hefty legal bills thanks to son Porter's dalliance with an older, married woman and had to sell the pizzeria to pay them off, which sent Lynette, once again, back to the workforce, where she had to hide the fact that she was preggers with twins because she feared losing her job. But through it all, Lynette managed to keep her kiddies fed and clothed and living in their swanky house in the 'hood. Like we said, tough cookie.

'The Simpsons'
Cheap chic: We don't have to look further than the show's first episode to see how the Simpsons turned a financial crisis into one of the family's best Christmases ever. When Marge had to spend her Christmas shopping savings on removing Bart's tattoo, she counted on Homer's company bonus to buy gifts. And when stingy Mr. Burns withheld bonuses, Homer got a job as a department store Santa to earn extra holiday money. More Bart antics led Homer to make less than he'd anticipated, so he decided to take the meager earnings he had and try to parlay them at the dog track. He bet on the losing dog, of course, but when the pooch was kicked to the curb by his owner, Homer wisely saw the opportunity to give his family the ultimate gift: a pet, Santa's Little Helper.

'The Waltons'
Cheap chic: The show was set during the Great Depression and World War II, when John and Olivia Walton raised seven children (and housed John's parents in the same home), on the earnings from the lumber mill John and his father ran. The Waltons usually managed to get everything they needed, but it always required an awful lot of hard work, and a little ingenuity. In the clip below, for example, Grandpa Walton concocts a secret plan to save the family from a dire situation when the electric bill is due and the Waltons have just 22 cents in the coffers.

Cheap chic: In this WEtv reality series, the Bruce family had been living quite un-thriftily, until the economy crashed and dad Todd's contracting business all but dried up. As the title says, the family had to downsize quickly, moving into a cheaper home, doing away with frequent dinners out and even cutting out lessons and most extracurricular activities for the kids. But their dire financial situation ultimately brought the Bruces closer together, as they found new ways to make money together, new ways to entertain themselves together and new ways to cut their family budget ... together. In the clip below, mom Laura and dad Todd are surprised to learn from their financial planner just how far couponing will help the family stretch its earnings.

'Little House on the Prairie'
Cheap chic: A homemade dress was a treat for daughters Laura and Mary, as was a penny's worth of candy. The Ingalls family was all about hard work, and they cherished their time together more than the possessions they couldn't afford to buy much of the time. Through harsh winters, ruined crops and slowdowns at the mill where pa Charles sometimes worked, the Ingalls had to be thrifty, eating what they could catch and enjoying what tasty vittles Ma could miraculously whip up from a little bit of flour. And for the Ingalls family's evening entertainment: Pa's fiddle playing.

'Everybody Hates Chris'
Cheap chic: In most thrifty TV families, it's the mom who's the minder of the finances. But on 'Everybody Hates Chris,' it was dad Julius who kept a close watch on his family's budget. In fact, we'll go ahead and say it: Julius was a cheapskate, a notorious one, whose favorite pastime was calculating how much everything cost and constantly reminding his family of it, right down to telling them how many cents worth of electricity they were using and how many cents worth of ketchup they were putting on their food. In fairness, Julius' habit helped keep his working class family afloat ... though, as the clip below illustrates, it made him a lousy department store Santa Claus.

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April 08 2011 at 8:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ronald S Stresser Jr

In Brazil we have 'A Grande Família' (The Big Family), from Globo TV, it's the best here!

April 04 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why didn't married with children, i just don't understand.


April 04 2011 at 10:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Shisha hookah

I miss Malcolm in the Middle

April 04 2011 at 1:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm also surprised that Married with Children is not on here. They were the original "thrifty family". Anyone remember the episode where they moved into a supermarket because Al bought a cheap ancient air conditioner during a heatwave that knocked everyone's power out? Classic!

April 03 2011 at 11:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm going to suggest that The Torkelsons should have been on this list as well. Mother Millicent even wanted Dorothy Jane to go to the recycling center and get bottles and fill them up at home to have "bottled water" to offer at a party. The family even took in a border to make ends meet, since Millicent did furniture re-upholstering and tailoring. And that's just the beginning.

April 03 2011 at 6:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ok...I'm a little concerned. Why didn't Married with Children, the epitomy of Thrifty families (do we remember the family vacation to Dumpwater, Fl)?

April 03 2011 at 1:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree. When I saw the title of this article the first show I thought of was Shameless as well. It really should be on the list

April 03 2011 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know it's a new show, but it's shameful that Shameless was left off this list. The Gallaghers do an amazing job of surviving in the face of impossible odds and, unlike many of the examples cited above, it's not just one family member that makes it all happen. The entire clan actively participates in finding creative (if not always legal) methods to survive their situation while supporting each other emotionally in a very moving way.

April 03 2011 at 10:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Amazing! Another list of TV shows that I've never watched except when completely bored and unable to find any good programming.

April 03 2011 at 6:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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