It’s not often a TV celebrity will end up teaching you something as you watch. Unless you’re picking up catfight tips from The Real Housewives of Orange County, of course. However, John Oliver spends most segments of his satirical news show — Last Week Tonight on HBO — attempting to educate viewers about a number of issues. Some of them include exposés on FIFA scandals and Miss America pageants, and plenty have been about Donald Trump in the past year. But an overwhelming amount also have to do with our wallets.
In fact, Oliver’s segments about everything from the IRS and student loans to shady auto lenders are the reason Oliver was named the “Money Champion of the Year” at the end of 2016 by Time’s MONEY publication. It might seem unfortunate that the person who championed your money the most in the past year was a comedian on HBO, except for the fact that Oliver and his staff do such a remarkable job of covering complex financial issues that otherwise cause us to glaze over immediately.
Because really, who wants to spend 20 minutes talking about the Internal Revenue Service — aside from complaining about your tax bill? Oliver manages to do so, all while making you realize that funding issues might solve some of your IRS complaints. (The tax bill is still on you, unfortunately.)
Are you still not buying that Oliver can teach you something about your finances in his 30-minute show? Take a look at the following ten segments, where Oliver broke down a financial issue to make you a smarter consumer.
1. Student loans
Oliver’s show had been on the air for less than five months in 2014 when he tackled one of the most prominent financial problems Americans face: student debt. At that time, experts estimated that current and former students owed $1 trillion in loans — a figure that has since grown by another $300 million. Student loans can be crippling, and Oliver spent much of the segment detailing how for-profit schools cost way more than other options — all while preying on low-income students and veterans.
The segment clearly lays out the problems with for-profit schools, and also suggests that students think long and hard about where they spend their money — and their loan dollars. “Make sure your college years are the best ones of your life. Because thanks to the debt that we are saddling you with, they almost certainly will be,” Oliver said as he concluded the segment.
2. The wealth gap
“Our main story tonight is income inequality. A good way to figure out which side of it you’re on is whether you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it,” Oliver quipped in this more recent clip about the wealth gap that has grown consistently wider in recent years. The report references a statistic that shows the chasm between the rich and poor in America is at its widest since the 1920s — right before the Great Depression.
In the clip Oliver talks about how the wealthy have benefited by cuts in capital gains and income taxes, and also argues that the estate tax helps most Americans — despite some politicians calling it a “death tax.” However, he also makes the point that our own worst enemy when it comes to fixing the income divide is our inherent sense of optimism that some day, we too will be rich. “Your optimism is overwhelmingly positive, except, except when it leads you to act against your own best interests,” Oliver adds.
To conclude the segment, Oliver played “America Ball,” a lottery drawing to demonstrate the odds of being wealthy if you’re born into wealth, and being wealthy if you’re born into relative poverty. (As you might assume, the odds are much, much worse when you’re born without money.)
3. The IRS
John Oliver’s popularity didn’t seem to dip much in 2015 after he aired this clip about the IRS — despite the fact that he argues we should give more funding to the agency that takes your money. In fact, Oliver admitted as much in the introduction: “It [the IRS] combines the two things that we hate the most in life: Someone taking our money, and math.” Despite this, Oliver and his team manage to make a compelling case –considering that functions at the IRS have reached dismal levels since the government slashed its budget in 2010 by 20%.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of IRS employees have been laid off. While you might think it’s good news to hate the agency, it’s actually Congress that sets the tax rate and determines how many changes should be made to the tax law. As a result of the staffing cuts, fewer people are able to run customer service centers and phone lines, and fewer people are available to track you down to pay your bills.
Sounds great? Maybe. But in reality, the taxes that we pay each year are widely based on a trust system, Oliver contends. If the American people at large lose faith in the IRS and stop paying their taxes each year, functions as we know it would grind to a halt. As the report outlines, a 1% drop in compliance would lead to $30 billion in lost revenue. You might not want to pay your taxes, but you certainly want your neighbors to. For that, we need the IRS.
4. Auto lending
Bad credit? No credit? Repossessions in the past? No problem! That’s the schtick of many so-called “buy here, pay here” car dealerships that set up financing deals directly with customers — often landing the customer with a cost that’s much higher than the Kelley Blue Book value of the car for sale.
Oliver details the process, including how many low-income people with poor credit obtain subprime loans with incredibly high interest rates that they’re inevitably unable to pay. It’s eerily similar to the ramp-up to the mortgage crisis that was a factor in the Great Recession — a resemblance Oliver is quick to point out. He also provides examples of how one beat-up lemon was sold, repossessed, and resold eight times over the course of 3 years — often at double or triple the actual value of the car.
As if the reality of that isn’t ridiculous enough, Oliver teams up with Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame) in a mock ad for Crazy Johnny’s Used Cars at the end of the segment. If you ever find yourself in a dealership that looks anything like this, just walk away.
5. Retirement planning
As Oliver’s show has evolved, so have some of his clips. While still highly entertaining, Oliver often entreats his viewers to actually do something about their situations, instead of just learn about them. That’s the case with this clip from June 2016 about retirement planning, in which Oliver spends most of his time showing how harmful seemingly innocent fees on your retirement accounts can be.
“Think of fees like termites. They’re tiny, they’re barely noticeable, and they can eat away your f***ing future,” Oliver said. He gave the example of the show’s own struggle to set up a 401(k) plan that would yield decent returns without sticking their employees with gouging advisory fees. If you’re not careful, some of those fees could end up costing up to two-thirds of what you would have otherwise had for retirement.
To end the segment, Oliver (with help from comedian Billy Eichner) provides five basic tips for everyday people trying to save for retirement. If you’re looking for just that part, start the video around the 17:55 mark — though we highly recommend the rest of it, too.
6. Debt buyers
This segment starts with a comparison to Nicholas Cage’s recent string of abysmal films, and ends with Oliver pushing a big red button to forgive $15 million in medical debt for more than 9,000 people living in Texas. All in all, it’s well worth the watch.
But in the middle, Oliver gets into the extremely shady debt-buying industry, in which almost anyone — often without certifications — can start a debt collection company. “It is pretty clear by now debt buying is a grimy business and badly needs more oversight,” Oliver said. “Because as it stands, any idiot can get into it. And I can prove that to you because I’m an idiot, and we started a debt-buying company — and it was disturbingly easy.”
The lack of oversight is the most alarming aspect of the industry, especially since debt buying agencies attracted more than 280,000 complaints at the Federal Trade Commission in a single year. But Oliver and his team decided to go a different route, instead forgiving the debt they bought for $60,000 through a non-profit agency. In jest, it was so that Oliver could best Oprah’s biggest giveaway of cars for her audience — valued around $8 million. In reality, it bettered people’s lives. One Reddit user posted a photo of the debt forgiveness letter he received, showing he no longer owed almost $4,000. In fact, he didn’t even have to pay taxes on the debt forgiveness, since Oliver used a non-profit company to do so.
7. Multilevel marketing
Do you know someone who sells products from Herbalife, Rodan & Fields, Mary Kay, or another multilevel marketing company? While you might have been tempted to join and make some money on the side, Oliver makes a strong case for staying far, far away.
You’ll know a company is a multilevel marketing firm, or MLM, from two main factors. First, you can’t buy the products in typical stores, but rather through distributors like friends or family. Second, those distributors are always looking for new people to join their sales team. “The dangling of vast lifestyle improvements is at the heart of the MLM pitch,” Oliver said, adding that many pitches include testimonials about quitting a day job, having extra money for a new car, or earning regular bonuses.
The problem with all this, is that many of these make more money from selling products to the other people you convince to sign up — rather than to retail customers. When that’s the case, the business model becomes sketchily pyramid-shaped — so much so that the Federal Trade Commission filed one particularly troubling complaint against Herbalife, one of the biggest MLMs in the business. If you’re considering joining one of these businesses, or know someone who is, it might be best to take a look at every angle of it.
8. Credit reports
Your credit score can affect a number of things, from your mortgage loan rates and credit card offers to getting an apartment or even receiving a job offer. Though we’ve mentioned before how important it is to check your credit score at least once a year from the three major reporting agencies, Oliver arguably does a funnier job of showing why it’s so important.
One of the main reasons, as Oliver explains, is that there are often errors on those reports. You could have serious marks against you that you don’t even realize are there, so it’s important to discover them early on and fix them as soon as possible. Otherwise, any background and credit checks you undergo could trigger inaccurate red flags.
9. Food waste
Americans love to eat, but we also love to throw almost half of it away, according to Oliver’s reporting. He references several sources that indicate that almost 40% of food produced in the United States ultimately ends up in a landfill after being thrown away — or about 20 pounds of food per person, per month.
“When you’re throwing that much food away, you’re not just being wasteful, you’re wining and dining raccoons,” he quipped. Not only is this food waste terrible when you consider the fact that many families in the U.S. can’t afford to purchase that food, but it also causes the greenhouse gas emissions to become much, much worse.
And if you’re completely selfish and don’t care about those issues, Oliver points out that it also causes major problems for your own wallet, since groceries are so expensive. For as much as we throw away, it’s basically like tossing out a bag of groceries for every four you carry out of the store.
Churches and religious organizations can benefit their communities in a number of ways — but those particular institutions aren’t the ones in the crosshairs of this segment on Oliver’s show. Instead, he focuses on the religious groups who prey on people’s faith for financial gain.
Oliver warned viewers against the schemes of televangelists and other figures who encourage followers to give them “seed money” for their various projects — one of which included buying a private jet for one pastor named Creflo Dollar. The script in these prosperity gospel pitches goes something like this: Parishioners or supporters provide the money, under the teaching that their generosity will be returned to them at the end of their life. (Provided, of course, that they’ve been “faithful enough.”)
Of course, that money can go directly into tax-advantaged accounts, to be used for whatever purpose — positive or not. To show this, Oliver began his own ministry called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, which was legally allowed to solicit cash donations from viewers to be stored in a tax-advantaged account. (The show ended up getting more donations than they had imagined, as shown in one update, with all of the real donations going to Doctors Without Borders.)