MP Dunleavey: How to give up the 'Sex and the City' lifestyle

Women in Red

Did 'Sex and the City' ruin you, too?

How did we let a sitcom convince us that self-indulgence and designer clothes were every woman's right? Three recovering shoppers share lessons learned the hard way.

[Related content: debt, budgeting, spending, luxury, MP Dunleavey]
By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

You cannot make this stuff up. At the same time "Sex and City 2" was approaching its release, new personal-finance books hit the shelves -- written by women in recovery from . . . "Sex and the City."

Carrie Bradshaw would have clinked a Cosmo to that one.

The three books offer true shopping confessions and hard-won money lessons. But as poignant and practical as these new come-to-money books are, a bigger question remains: How did a silly sitcom about four friends become such a powerful influence on women's spending habits -- sometimes a dire one? As a friend lamented recently, "'Sex and the City' ruined me."

Nancy Trejos, the author of "Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too" and a staff writer for The Washington Post, doesn't blame the show for her financial undoing. "But as much as I loved the show, I do think it sent a message that women have to look a certain way to be successful," she says.

"I found it amusing that Carrie -- who was a writer, just like I was -- could afford so many designer clothes. It wasn't realistic. And those kinds of messages made women set unrealistic goals."

Trejos concedes that at one point her finances were in such disarray that she borrowed $1,500 from her parents to pay her rent. "Here I was, a personal-finance writer for one of the best newspapers in the country, and I had to borrow money from my immigrant parents, who had managed to make it in the U.S. on their own. That's when I knew I had to make some big changes in my life."

Irrational exuberance in the dressing room?

Avis Cardella, the author of "Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict," lived a Carrie-like lifestyle as a fashion reporter in Manhattan in the late 1990s, when the show first aired.

She says it was as if two forces converged as the series unfolded. "SATC" ran from 1998 to 2004; it spanned the end of the tech bubble and the rise of the housing bubble, and almost could be read as a case study of those irrationally exuberant times.

"'Sex and the City' ran during a time when everyone was led to believe that they could have it all," says Cardella, who suffered a serious shopping addiction (compulsive buying is now a recognized psychological disorder) that left her saddled her with thousands in debt. "Not only was I having trouble paying bills, but I also found myself forgoing food for shopping."

It's not that the show encouraged fiscal irresponsibility, Cardella says, "but it encouraged fantasizing, and too much fantasizing can lead to all kinds of problems."

But while "SATC" delivered its hard-core -- and often heartfelt -- plotlines about friends and lovers, it never pretended to be anyone's financial reality check. The fabulous clothes and accessories were just sidebars to the stories, and yet so many women got overtaken by the fantasy.

What were we thinking?

I rarely watched "SATC" because the fantasy aspect was so annoying to, yes, another struggling journalist then living in Manhattan. But when someone related the famous episode in which Miranda calculates that Carrie has spent about $40,000 on shoes, I felt the flash of something familiar.

Like many women back then -- apparently! -- I allowed spending on my single life to evolve into a form of self-celebration: shopping and dining as feminism. I didn't own $40,000 worth of shoes, per se, but I probably spent that on pasta, drinks and traveling over the years.

What was I thinking as I racked up epic credit card debt and rejected every 401k plan that crossed my path? What were any of the "SATC" generation thinking as we got caught up in the fantasy of looking good at any price? I think we weren't thinking.

Continued: 'They hurt my feet'

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