One of the biggest hits of British television this year has been the reality drama Rich House Poor House. The Channel 5 show got families from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum to switch lives for a week. The exchange entailed shifting homes, living on new budgets and getting to experience the perks and pitfalls of having or not having money.
In the first episode, the Williamses, Antony and Kayleigh, with their six kids, switch homes with the Caddys, James and Claire, and their five children. The Williamses belong to the bottom 10% of British earners, with a disposable income (after rent and bills) of about 100 pounds. The same figure for Caddys is upwards of 1,700 pounds.
The differences in their living conditions start with the houses. The Williamses live in a three-bedroom house with just one toilet that they have to share among the eight people who make up the family. During the week they appear on the show, they move into the Caddys’ seven-bedroom, seven-toilet house in posh Clifton, a mansion spread over four floors.
For the first night in their new house, the Williamses order in, as does Angela Carter-Begbie, a single mother who represents the lower end of the income divide in episode 2. Each episode has a new pair of families that trade places, but they do more than that. They also get to shop, dine and play at the places the other family frequents, entailing a taste of not just where but how the other lives.
The shift occasions several heartwarming scenes. Antony decides to buy trainers for his son – shoes whose absence had prevented him for applying to the school football team. He also buys his wife a new necklace that he gifts her at a fancy restaurant that is a regular haunt of the Caddys. The intensity of both scenes – the son is ecstatic while Kayleigh breaks down – is a resounding yes to that old question about money and happiness.
With so much money at her disposal, episode 2’s Angela relaxes for the first time in years about her daily shopping. She gets to buy organic meats and better-quality foods at a price that is perilously close to her weekly salary. Later, she describes her joy at being able to shop unfettered, tears rolling down her cheeks at how lovely it is not to have to worry about money.
But Rich House Poor House does not just showcase the redeeming qualities of financial security. It also brings out the importance of financial discipline and the need to look after those less fortunate than us. Both James and Terry Bentley, the top 10-percent-er from episode 2, come from humble beginnings and appreciate that their wealth is the result of both hard work and luck.
Terry’s daughter Kaylee, who has trouble settling into the Carter-Begbies home, has a moment of revelation when she and her parents talk about finances. Since her movement into Angela’s house, Kaylee has not gone out to eat or visited a spa – the Carter-Begbies’ weekly budget does not permit it. “We like to see you enjoy the money we have while we can,” her mother says, and Kaylee, whose parents are getting on in age, breaks down.
Ultimately, Rich House Poor Houseis a hopeful look at how, while it bestows luxuries, there are things that even money can’t buy. When she returns to her modest accommodation at the end of episode 2, Angela says, “It’s lovely to be back home. Home is where the heart is.” All the comforts in the world cannot ensure the togetherness that a familiar abode with loved ones provides.