In the golden age of game shows, you competed for cars or dream vacations. TV's newest game show has a decidedly more practical premise: win money to pay off your student loans.
"Paid Off," which airs on truTV on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST and is hosted by Michael Torpey ("Orange is the New Black"), lets recent graduates compete for the chance to get rid of their loans. "The situation around student debt is absurdly tragic,” Torpey tells CNBC Make It.
While he didn't have student loans himself, Torpey used the proceeds from his first big acting gig, a national underwear ad campaign, to help pay off his wife's debt. The experience bubbled up into the idea for the game show, he says. He wanted to do something similar to Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and John Oliver: funny, but with an impact.
“Because it’s absurd, we can tell jokes and laugh at it, but there’s still a tragedy there," he says, since debt "is holding back millions of people. It’s holding back our nation’s economy.”
Contestant Madeleine Pilon, 28, one of those millions of people, saw the game as an opportunity to get her life back on track. “I had friends who graduated with no debt. The things they were able to do and the freedom they had to make choices was very different from what I had,” she tells CNBC Make It. “At this point in our lives, over five years later, they are a lot further than I am financially.”
Pilon first heard about the show from a co-worker. “There were four of us who applied and we have an office of 20 people, so you can imagine there are quite a few millennials who jumped on it,” she says.
After several interviews and even an on-camera session, Pilon was asked back for filming in April. Revealing the extent of her loans bothered her at first. “I don’t talk about my finances with anyone really, except my boyfriend because we live together,” she says. “It was weird putting that out there but, in the end, once everyone was saying it too, it felt less weird.”
Of the three contestants facing off in the first episode, Pilon had the most debt: $41,222. That's over twice as much as her opponents, even though she had paid off tens of thousands of dollars already with the help of family and a whole lot of dedication to what she calls "simple living."
Pilon graduated from Davidson College with roughly $70,000 in loans, almost double . To fund her degree in anthropology, Pilon took out both federal student loans with interest rates of 3-4 percent and private loans with interest rates that were twice as high. “I had some loans that were a crazy level of interest, which is just crushing,” she says.
Right out of school, Pilon says she was paying $900 a month on her loans. But her first job paid just $28,000 a year, so those loan payments quickly became overwhelming. “If you do that math, I couldn’t afford to do anything,” she says. “I had a cheap apartment with two other roommates, I didn’t own a car — I would take transit to work,” she says, which, in Atlanta, wasn't always easy.
Those cost-cutting measures still weren't enough. Pilon had to go into deferment at one point. “It all just kept adding interest and getting bigger until I started making those payments,” she says.
Pilon’s debts also put her dream of med school out of reach. “I decided not to be a doctor,” she says. “I was incredibly stressed out when I got out of school and a very large part of that was my debt and trying to figure out how to pay all that back and have a life and feed myself.”
They also made social situations fraught. “My friends would invite me to birthday parties, to go to some schmoozy burger place in Atlanta and I’d just be so stressed about it,” she says. When the invitations came, her first thought wasn’t whether she was free. It was about how she was going to pay for the Uber downtown and the $15 burger.
“This one time, I ate half my burger and my girlfriend looked over and asked, ‘Are you going to finish that?'" Pilon recalls. She had purposely eaten only half so she could take the other portion for lunch the next day. “But it was her birthday, so even though I died inside a little bit, I let her have it,” Pilon says. “It was tough.”
After paying down her student loan debt to just over $40,000, Pilon was still putting about $600 a month toward her loans.
"Paid Off" contestants battle each other during several rounds of trivia that range from correctly answering general questions to guessing Family Feud-style survey responses like, What’s the most romantic date you can have for under $10? According to the survey results, "a picnic" was the top answer.
“We structured the game to not just be all traditional trivia,” Torpey says. “I didn’t want the show to become a college quiz bowl where every week it was just three Ivy-league student housing trivia. It’s supposed to representative of a full college experience and a full life.”
After three rounds, Pilon racked up $3,600 to advance to the final, where she had to answer eight questions correctly in under a minute. Pilon says it was a “crazy, very nerve-wracking” experience. “That final round, I don’t even remember any of it. I had no concept of how long it had been,” she says. “I was trying my best just to listen to every word that came out of Michael’s mouth.” The strategy worked but then she hit a snag and it took her a bit to recover.
That time cost her. Pilon ended up getting seven questions correct. “When they said seven, my heart sank first and then it hit me that I still won tens of thousands of dollars and I was overwhelmed,” Pilon says. All told, she won $24,211, enough to pay off roughly half her debt.
In the three months since the taping, Pilon’s life hasn’t changed much. Contestants don’t get paid until their show airs, so she’s anxiously waiting for both the winnings and the chance to share her good news. “They said to us, you tell anybody, you’re risking your money,” Pilon says.
She’s planning on putting the cash toward a $24,000 private student loan. Those “are much more expensive with much higher interest,” she says. “To knock that out is like I won double the money.”
Of course, because it’s a game show, Pilon will have to pay taxes on her winnings. But she’s got a plan. “This is the year I hire an accountant,” she says. “I need to figure out how to handle all of that.”
Giving away the money to struggling grads like Pilon is only part of the mission, Torpey says, though it's an important part: “We gave almost half a million dollars in the first season, and no one has called to yell at me, so I assume that’s OK."
In his mind, the show is only successful if it helps raise awareness of and put faces to the crisis: “Even if we do this show for years and years and years, it will always be a drop in the bucket compared to the 45 million people out there with student debt.”
“I finish every show saying ‘Call your representatives and tell them we need a better solution than this game show.’ And I absolutely mean it,” Torpey says. “Get my show off the air. Get someone to fix this thing and I’ll happily go away and sell underpants again.”
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