Few entertainers’ day jobs focus as closely on money and finance as Michael Torpey’s.
As the host of Tru TV’s “Paid Off with Michael Torpey,” Torpey introduces viewers to struggling student loan borrowers competing to win help paying off their loans.
New episodes premiere Monday and one of the major goals, according to Torpey, is to give away more money. The show doubled its prize budget and added a live call-in round at the end of each episode, ultimately giving away more than $1 million. Borrowers call in and have the chance to answer three trivia questions to win up to $3,000 in student loan help. Torpey, 39, has and a half minutes to get through as many callers as possible.
In addition to the lightning round, the show added themed episodes, including one about borrowers who have to move back in with their parents because of their debt and one focused on first-generation college students.
‘I’m continually shocked by how many people are being held back from doing the good work that we want people to be doing in this country.’
Even with the extra prize money and more opportunities for borrowers to compete, the show isn’t going to fix the nation’s $1.5 trillion student debt problem. Instead, the goal according to Torpey is “to raise awareness and push for big systemic change.”
“While we’re pushing for that we’re also trying to help as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” said Torpey, who played Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.”
We spoke to Torpey about the new season, what he’s learned about student debt hosting the show, his favorite piece of financial advice and more:
MarketWatch: Before you started the show, you researched student debt and its sources and challenges. But now that you’ve done two seasons of the show, what did you learn about the issue that you didn’t expect?
Michael Torpey: I’m continually shocked by how many people are being held back from doing the good work that we want people to be doing in this country.
In this new batch of episodes there were people who were held back from training to be a midwife in a country that has maternal morbidity and mortality rates that are not in line with what should be a first world and first rate health care system. There are people who wanted to open up a counseling center in their communities.
These are things that these communities really need and that these people really want to do and they can’t take that step. I’m continually shocked at we have these holes in our society, these missing roles that people are trying to fill and they can’t.
MarketWatch: Are there any big changes to the show this season?
Torpey: The biggest one is the live lightning round. The big goal of “Paid Off” is to raise awareness and push for big systemic change. The show itself is not a solution and change of course takes a lot of time. While we’re pushing for that we’re also trying to help as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
After the show launched last year, we got thousands of applications and we wanted to find a way to open it up to even more people. We’re going to end every episode now with me trying to give away as much money as possible to people who are at home with student debt.
MarketWatch: After “Paid Off” premiered, people said the idea of asking borrowers to compete for student loan relief was sort of a dystopian concept. What do you say to that?
Torpey: It’s a completely appropriate response. It is upsetting that a game show is someone’s best course of action for paying for their education. That’s where we are right now.
Clearly [the show] is not just about paying off people’s student debt; that would be a silly goal if that was the only thing the show was doing. We created a piece of activism satire that is trying to call out this problem and in the process also help some people who really need it.
But I get it. To me it’s the same thing as saying how can we need a GoFundMe for someone who is paying for their medical bills? We’re allowing our government to turn a blind eye to it, we’re picking each other up. There’s no reason someone should have to go online and ask for help to pay their medical bills and there’s no reason someone should have to go on a game show to pay off their education.
But unfortunately that’s where we are.
MarketWatch: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently released a proposal to cancel student debt for millions of Americans as part of her presidential campaign. What do you think of that proposal?
Torpey: I think Warren’s plan is great. It’s the government taking ownership for a failed policy, which I think is appropriate.
Student debt is tied so much into income inequality that using a tax on the 75,000 richest families, that makes sense to me as well. These are the families that have been able to make their fortunes off our country and off of this workforce that has not benefited at the same rate.
MarketWatch: Has doing the show taught you anything about your personal experience with student debt? (Torpey and his wife were able to pay off her student debt thanks to an underwear commercial he booked with Michael Jordan in 2010).
Torpey: What’s become very clear — and I kind of knew this at the time — we would have made it. We were of the fortunate group that had a job that paid enough money to eventually pay off the debt.
The people that really need the help are the ones that have a huge disparity between their debt amount and their income or the ones that were unable to finish school and have all of the debt and don’t have the degree.
That’s another thing that makes me hopeful about this live lightning round, that it can reach some people who didn’t have access to the show. Maybe they’re working a job that doesn’t give them time off to go to Atlanta to participate in the show. You can win $3,000 playing this live call-in session — $3,000 could be a real boost to them.
MarketWatch: From doing the show and seeing the reaction to it, what are some widespread misunderstandings about student debt?
Torpey: Some people feel like it’s just an individual burden and you should have known better. I just completely disagree with that.
It implies that you could have done something better — that it’s your fault. We saw those opinions pop up a little bit more [in response to Warren’s proposal]. People saying, “wait I paid off my debt you should have to pay off your debt.”
That just feels very small-minded. It’s not how I wish society responded to problems. I wish we could say here’s a solution and I don’t want people to have to go through what I went through.
You hear these amazing stories of someone who says i came out with $40,000 in debt and I slept in my car and I ate tuna fish and I paid it back in a year and a half.
I hear that and I think I’m so sorry you had to do that and it sounds terrible. What if something had gone wrong? So many things had to line up perfectly for you to be able to do that. We can’t hold up these things of self-flagellation and say that’s your model for paying for college.
MarketWatch: How has doing the show affected the way you think about planning for your daughter’s future? (Torpey’s daughter is two and a half years old).
Torpey: I’m saving for her education, I’ve got a 529 plan. I’m trying to do the responsible thing.
Mostly I’m so grateful that I get so much time with her. I see people [on the show] who are forced to work so much that they don’t have time with their kids. That’s terrible, it’s really upsetting. Someone’s education is costing time with their children.
In the first season there was a guy who was a school counselor and then he was also doing counseling work on the weekends. He was really giving of himself everywhere and he didn’t win the grand prize, he won $9,000. [When he won] he said “I’ll be able to get my weekends back with my daughter” and that hit me so hard because its just something I take for granted.
The idea that I wouldn’t have my weekends with my daughter would kill me right now and it is just something he had given up because he had to.
MarketWatch: What’s the best financial advice you’ve been given?
Torpey: The general idea of you can’t take it with you. That’s not saying that you should just spend like crazy, but try to find that balance between planning for the future and enjoying life today.
That’s a spot where a lot of people with student debt get stuck and they’re not enjoying life today at all.
MarketWatch: Did someone specifically offer you this advice or is it just something you’ve heard over the years?
Torpey: There’s a friend of mine who is great at it. I get trapped hoarding a special moment. If someone gives me a nice bottle of wine, I’ll want to find the perfect night to enjoy it. I have a friend who is like, “let’s open that thing right now.”
I try to live more in that way — live things in the moment and if I enjoy something very much and want to do it again, find a way to do it again.
MarketWatch: What do you not mind splurging on?
Torpey: Travel. Travel is always where I want to spend any extra money. I find it’s the most beneficial experience and I find it has the greatest lasting impact.
When my wife and I did our honeymoon, we said let’s do our best to not worry about what we’re spending, let’s try to make this a memorable experience. It was liberating to be like, let’s go have a memorable meal at this place. Let’s do everything we want to do at this one time and enjoy the fact that we’re celebrating our marriage.
I like to spend money on experiences — that can be travel, that can be food, things that change how I look at the world, how I experience the world — those are the things that I enjoy spending money on and try to push myself to do.
MarketWatch: Do you think you’ll ever retire?
Torpey: I hope I have the ability to retire, but I want to continue working; I love performing, I love being an actor. My dream would be to have a career where I could just slow down and continue to do jobs here or there. I hope I have the option of retirement, it would be very sad if I never did.
I’m fortunate. I’m part of a union, I pay into a pension plan; that will be of great assistance when the time comes.