I am referring to the sitcom on CBS, not the actual theory. The economics of the actual theory would be much harder to quantify.
So, I like "The Big Bang Theory", it's a funny show with funny characters and smart writing. It's even pretty realistic, because apparently they hired an actual physicist to consult with the show and ensure that the equations the characters write on the various whiteboards are actually correct. Even a character on the show, Mayim Bialik (Amy Farah Fowler), consults with the neuroscience stuff because she has a PhD in it! Neat!
So, due to this attention to detail in the accuracy of the show, it was surprising to me that in one episode they wrote something that was, in my mind, egregiously inaccurate.
The atrocity was committed in the segment shown below, where Howard shows Bernadette an action figure of himself that he made using a 3D printer he and Raj purchased for $5000. Bernadette blows up at him about spending money wisely and that he should have told consulted her before the purchase. When Howard tries to defend their financial position by saying they make plenty of money, she exclaims "I make plenty of money, you make peanuts!"
Of course, this is one of those "ha ha, it's funny because it reverses traditional gender roles" moments, which are becoming increasingly common in our very pro-feminist society. With this scene, the writers are pretty much shouting to everyone "LOOK HOW PROGRESSIVE WE ARE, PLEASE LIKE US, MILLENNIALS!"
I get that, and I forget if it was in this or another episode where they played with this theme again, instead having Penny with a good job and salary, making Leonard nervous. Obviously a direction they wanted the show to take.
There is just one little problem, though.
Like myself, Howard is an engineer, and I will not stand idly by when my profession is said to make "peanuts." No! I'm going to write a retort on the internet years later!
A few people in the comments section of this video shared my sentiment, many providing reasons why Howard would probably make a fair amount of money (he did go to space, although it was perhaps in a later episode, but still, you don't pick a run of the mill engineer to go to space, you pick a good one...and that means one that makes a fair amount of money).
Someone even pulled out an oddly specific number for Howard's salary: $84k per year. I don't really know where this came from, maybe it was mentioned in another episode perhaps? In any case, we can use it as a baseline.
Before we dive too much into the details of who makes how much, let's first examine the philosophical question of "how much more does one have to make than their spouse before they can say with total confidence that their spouse makes 'peanuts' in comparison?" On a side note, I strongly recommend that you never, under any circumstances, say that your spouse makes "peanuts", unless of course they are a writer for the comic strip "Peanuts."
Now, for the sake of argument, let's say you make $150k and your spouse makes $50k. Sure, you make 3x your spouse's salary, and sure, you probably wouldn't need your spouse's salary to stay financially afloat, but I mean, you could still use it, right? That's $50k extra, which isn't bad at all. It means you both can drive nicer cars or get a nicer house or go to nicer restaurants or put your kids in nicer colleges. Now, if you made like, $500k, then that $50k starts to look pretty measly in comparison. So, if we split the difference a bit, I'd say you'd have to make at least 5x your spouse's salary before it starts to be negligible. (In engineering, things are generally thought to be negligible if they are an order of magnitude (10x) below something, so 5x is a tad generous).
So, Realistically, How Much Would Howard and Bernadette Make?
Let's start with Howard. From a Youtube comment, he was said to make $84k. It was mentioned on the show at least a few times that he is an aerospace engineer. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median salary for aerospace engineers is $103,720, hardly "peanuts".
Now, what do we know about Howard? Well, it is mentioned on the show numerous times that he has a "Master's in engineering" (most of the time as a cut from the other PhD-clad characters). Where did he do his schooling? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a top engineering college. Putting it all together, he has a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering from MIT and works at Caltech. This is useful information, and below is a table of the salaries of MIT graduates with Master in Engineering degrees:
We can see that the starting salaries for Master of Engineering degrees from MIT are nothing to scoff at. Keep in mind that by the season in the show in which this episode was aired Howard would have accumulated upwards of 10 years experience (assuming they are all in their 30s by that point), driving his salary up even more.
"But," you say, "he works at a university, and that would probably pay less than 'industry'". Well, according to this site, the base salary of a research engineer at Caltech is $82,315. So, it looks like the original $84k wasn't too far off. But, depending on how raises work at Caltech, with near a decade of experience (and with a design that went on the ISS), Howard's salary is probably significantly more than $82,315, and considering his credentials, would probably be scraping into six figures.
"But," you also say, "cost of living in Pasadena, CA isn't cheap, and $82k doesn't go very far." You'd be right, cost of living in southern California is significantly more expensive than most of the United States, with the biggest culprit being housing, which is a whopping 102% more than the national average. The rest of the costs in the region is relatively reasonable in terms of pricing.
Here's the kicker with Howard, if you've watched pretty much any episode of "The Big Bang Theory" before the episode we are talking about, then you'll know in vivid detail that he lived with his mother. The interactions between him and his crazy mom were a steady source of laughs throughout the show, but they also provide an important detail about Howard's financial situation: he didn't pay for housing.
Without having to pay for housing, Howard avoided the biggest expense incurred from living in southern California, and therefore was able to save a ton of money. Without housing, his main expenses dwindled to food, clothes, and sci-fi collectibles. Hell, his mom even cooked most of his meals for him, so the food cost was pretty much limited to The Cheesecake Factory and various take-out establishments. You could make the argument that he could've dropped a lot of cash on sci-fi collectibles, but would he drop an average of $80k a year on them? I think not. Let's also be real here, Howard is Jewish (as stated numerous times on the show), and if cultural stereotypes are any indication, then he probably invested a fair amount of those savings. He drives a moped, not a car, and is not said to go on any exotic vacations, so overall his expenses are pretty low.
So, to sum up Howard's financial state, he probably makes somewhere between $80-$100k, of which at least half is saved/invested due to his low living expenses. Overall, I'd say he's doing pretty fine, financially.
But what about Bernadette? Doesn't she make some sick salary as a microbiologist for some big company? Let's see what the numbers say, shall we?
Not much is ever explicitly stated about the job Bernadette gets once she receives her PhD. It is just implied that it pays well and might involve her doing some ethically questionable things with regards to biological weapons/experiments. Writers of fiction love vague jobs like this because it gives them creative license to do pretty much whatever they want.
How much would she realistically make, though? While there are many websites that offer this information, I found that this one was particularly interesting because it gave a nice look at the lifetime salaries after different levels of education, and since the website is about bioscience, you could figure it would be the most generous when it came to salaries.
We know that Bernadette has achieved a PhD by this episode, so, according to the website, those starting a career right after getting a PhD in Microbiology earn a whopping $38,392 per year. I was a tad shocked when I saw this, because it honestly seems pretty awful for someone that just toiled for years to get a PhD...$40k is not an awesome payoff. Hell, there are a fair amount of bachelor's degrees that earn more than that out of college, and for a lot less work.
But, the website claims, salaries of Microbiologists with PhDs can rise dramatically after a few years of experience. For a PhD with 5-8 years experience, the median salary rises to $70,567...still lower than Howard's starting salary.Of course, that is the median, so we could be really generous and assume Bernadette is a one-percenter who somehow landed a ridiculously high paying job with very little experience. Even so, there aren't any cases of subsets of microbiology that make six figures, according to this website. And it is implied that Bernadette does work as a microbiologist, she isn't a department manager or CEO of a microbiology company.
With that in mind, we can safely say that Bernadette would, in the real world, not out-earn Howard, and even if she did, she wouldn't out-earn him to the level where she could scoff at his salary as if it was nothing in comparison to hers. Oh, and she would also probably have a decent amount of student debt (granted, some could have been offset from working at The Cheesecake Factory, which apparently pays well enough for Penny to afford a comfortable apartment in Pasedena...but that's a whole 'nother can of worms).
And, even if Bernadette made some sort of impossibly large salary for her profession, at that point her and Howard's combined income would be large enough that she would have no reason to overreact about a $5000 purchase, which, by the way, Howard could clearly afford with his own savings as proved above.
So Why Should You Care?
Is this a big deal? No. Am I over-reacting a little? Probably. It's certainly not the first time a work of fiction has grossly over or under-estimated the earnings of a certain profession (with architects being a favorite), and it definitely won't be the last.
But, "The Big Bang Theory" is honestly a great show for young people to watch, because it has the potential to interest new generations in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). America is entering a time where it needs people in the STEM fields more than ever, if we want to continue being a relevant country. I'm worried that people would watch this and think that engineers don't make very much money, and it would discourage them from thinking about a career in engineering.
So, the takeaway is that engineers make a decent living, microbiologists can make a decent living with some work, and that you should always research the earnings of a profession before you get too deep in it.