Heroism Won't Pay the Bills

Being a freedom fighter, a force for good, it's a wonderful thing. Get to make your own hours, looks good on a resumè..but the pay sucks.
Alfred Bester, Babylon 5

So, as we've seen, the lifestyle of a hero often isn't that great. One of the many ways heroes can have it rough is the state of their bank account, because as it turns out, Heroism Won't Pay The Bills.

See, Humongous Mecha, Magic Powers and Superpowers aren't exactly useful in the workplace (except when they are). As a hero, you are spending time mastering skills which might be world-saving now, but have no marketable value later. Being a Triple Shifter also isn't exactly conductive to a good conventional education/career. If they're not careful, a hero could well end up a full-time Burger Fool or working a Soul-Sucking Retail Job just to make ends meet.

Furtheremore, when a hero asks Dude, Where's My Reward? everyone thinks he's either joking or being selfish. What if someone really, REALLY needs Hospitality for Heroes?

There are several ways to avoid this. One way is to be lucky enough to have a One-Hour Work Week. Another is for your civilian identity to be a (seeming) Rich Idiot with No Day Job or someone else who doesn't need to work for a living. Some jobs are more suitable for a (super)hero, but may not avert this trope entirely. Some more organized and sponsored Super Teams, or other organizations heroes work for, will pay 'employees' for their heroism; however, some heroes are not cut out for the trappings of working for someone else, and the malevolence or incompetence of the greater organization may make a hero's life difficult in other ways. Thank god for Hero Insurance, or things might be much worse, eh?

Sister Trope to The Masquerade Will Kill Your Dating Life- and Reed Richards Is Useless, because rarely do superheroes use their epic powers for anything other than combat.

Examples:

Anime and Manga

  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha defies this trope by at first working with, then becoming fully employed by the Time-Space Administration Bureau, thus making mage/Magical Girl her full-time job into the forseeable future. Many 'bad guys' get this treatment as well.
  • Chi-Chi in Dragon Ball brings this up often, pointing out how Goku's ability in martial arts (and frequent world-saving) has failed to get him any kind of career, and that he hasn't earned a single cent in all the time they've been married, (he has won winnings from tournaments before he got married though and the only time he officially won was right before he got married). This also ties into her motivation to get their son Gohan a proper education. The only time she actually wants Gohan to fight is not to save the world, but in one of the above-mentioned tournaments; after all, the prize money would more than cover his college tuition.
  • Bleach: When a very young Uryuu asks his father why he hates being a Quincy so much, Ryuuken states it's because there's no money in it. Upset, Uryuu asks his grandfather if Ryuuken is telling the truth. Souken explains that if looked at from the view that Ryuuken has a family to feed, it's true. Despite his intelligence, Uryuu doesn't seem to realise his father's comment was Blatant Lies or that his grandfather was giving him a Mathematician's Answer.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, Touma never gets rewarded or even acknowledged for repeatedly saving citizens, the city, or the world, so he struggles to pay for his groceries, rent, hospital bills, etc.
  • In Monster Rancher episode "Hare's Trick" the Searchers are down to their last coin and have to enter a tournament to raise money.

Comic Books
  • A regular source of angst for Spider-Man, who is a full time student, a part-time photographer, and a more than fulltime superhero.
  • One Donald Duck, Duck Avenger story revolved around the problems he was facing mainly because his equipment cost cash, and he was working for the good of the public. He ends up at first charging the people he rescues, causing his popularity to plummet, then getting endorsed by Scrooge McDuck, before finally solving his money problems and returning to being a hero to the public.
  • What's New? with Phil and Dixie. The Dragon magazine #75 strip discussed superheroes. One page of it dealt with the problems superheroes have with paying their bills.
  • Played With in an issue of New Avengers, where Steve Rogers, newly-instated as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., offers each member of the team a stipend for their heroics. Luke Cage, however initially refuses because he is extremely anti-establishment and was adamant that the team remain autonomous. His wife immediately snatches the check, and loudly reminds him that thanks to their last battle, they have nowhere to live, no food, no diapers, and no other necessities to take care of their infant child. Luke promptly shuts up and accepts the check.
  • In The Tick episode "The Tick vs. Arthur's Bank Account", the Tick tries his darnedest to get all sorts new equipment for crimefighting, regardless of how his sidekick Arthur's bank account is holding. It's made abundantly clear that the Tick has absolutely no clue how to work in real life, driving Arthur over the edge.
  • Early into Wally West's run as The Flash, he displays the fact that he's more pragmatic and less idealistic than his predecessor Barry Allen with this trope. Asked to deliver a heart for transplant across the country, he requests that he be given health insurance in return. He'd do it for free just to save a life, he explains, but after all the doctors are all getting paid, so why not him? At the end of the story he winds up winning the lottery, making the issue moot.
  • Averted in Astro City; not only does Honor Guard offer a stipend for members who need financial support, superheroes can register as Bounty Hunters with local law enforcement agencies.

Film
  • Discussed in the first Blade film, when the main character robs a vampire familiar sent to assassinate Karen, the young hematologist that Blade had earlier saved. When she chastises him, Blade retorts that his operation is "not exactly the March of Dimes."

Literature
  • Discussed in The Philosophical Strangler by Eric Flint. After Ignace has read the rules et c of the Professional Heroes Guild after he and Greyboar had been forced to join, he concluded:
    Fatality rate: expected to be astronomical.
    Casualty rate: all-encompassing, universal; a given.
    Recompense; nil, save the voluntary "gift."
    Selection of clients: nil, save that preference goes to the poorest, least privileged, and most downtrodden. Those with only a pot to piss in must be serviced first. Do not accept the pot as a "gift."
    And so on and so forth.
    "We're going to starve," I groaned. "If we live that long."
  • In The Dresden Files, Harry complains about this frequently, and spends a good chunk of the series broke or close to it. At one point he mentions that, yes, he saved the world, but didn't get paid for it, and in a short story he tries to bill the Archangel Uriel for his time before implicitly admitting that, yes, he'll keep being a hero even when there's no money in it.
  • Invoked in How to Be a Superhero to discuss the whys, hows, and methods for the would-be hero to license his exploits to Comic Book publishers or seek other forms of corporate sponsorship.

Live Action TV
  • This comes up in the first season of Angel. Angel is in the business of saving souls. After pointing out the awkward truth that they need to make money, Cordelia starts sending out bills for being saved.
  • Lyta Alexander in Babylon 5 was the Vorlon ambassador's assistant before the First Ones left. After the Shadow War, despite her contributions, she finds herself with no job prospects, because she's not a part of Psi Corps, and increasingly low on cash. After her last attempt to find a job falls through, she's forced to basically rejoin Psi Corps to make a living. She lampshades it in the last season, where she rattles off all the wars she's fought in, personally enabling victory in one battle, but how she didn't get anything for it, and by that point she's pissed at Sheridan for his lack of support for her, the Vorlons for using her then abandoning her, the Psi Corps for existing and especially making her rejoin them, and the universe in general for making her its Cosmic Plaything.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Being a slayer pretty much takes up all her time, but she doesn't get anything out of it, so the bank won't even give her a loan since she has no income, even after she saves the loan officer's life from a demon.

Musical
  • "The Two" by Felt is about two rappers who join forces to fight crime but eventually are forced to stop due to lack of funds.
    Well we saved the world and brought joy to the masses
    But couldn't save ourselves from the government and taxes

Tabletop Games

Video Games
  • Despite all of Hakurei Reimu's efforts to quell youkai incidents, her shrine gets few human visitors and few donations. Aya's interview with Reimu explains that she operates in a vacuum and few other participants in the incident will verify what actually happened. Her situation is not as miserly and starving as fandom tends to depict and officially Reimu wants the money for outreach to improve the shrine (only) and keeps her own garden for food.
  • Star Fox has the Star Fox crew taking up mercenary work to make money, but they will always play heroics and save the day when needed. The reason Fox and his crew require payment for their services is to help pay off Fox's inherited debt that his father racked up when he built the Great Fox and died before the debt could be paid off. So while Fox is inherently a good person, he doesn't exactly work for free.

Web Comics
  • One arc of El Goonish Shive had several of the main characters getting jobs at local businesses in order to make some money. Despite the fact that they had done some great work fighting Evil, they were not compensated in any way by the U.S. Government agency that one of their members' father worked for.
  • Saitama in One Punch Man does receive a monthly stipend once he joins the Hero Association. Despite that he spends an entire chapter trying to get pocket change to try a drink from a vending machine. Prior to joining the Hero Association, he did not have an apparent source of income.
  • Nava, the Genre Savvy protagonist from I Dont Want This Kind Of Hero, initially cites this as part of why he refuses to join Spoon.

Web Original
  • The main characters of Caper have this problem. Despite serving as the city's crimefighters, they don't get paid at all by the city and barely make enough money from their day jobs to make rent.

Western Animation
  • The episode "Daylight Savings" of The Powerpuff Girls has the titular heroines fall asleep in class after a night's worth of saving the world. (So much for "saving the world before bedtime".) As a result, Ms. Keane, believing that education is a bigger responsibility than saving the world, has the Professor set a strict 7:30 curfew, which unfortunately happens when villainy is at its worst. This specific instance is subverted/defied at the end, when it's revealed that thanks to daylight savings time the girls have enough time to defeat the villains and make their curfew. However, the episode still adds Fridge Horror to the setting as a whole.
    • Also, in the episode "A Very Special Blossom" when Blossom temporarily becomes a villain by stealing expensive golf material to give to her father for Father's Day, because she didn't have enough money to pay for them. Also, the Mayor didn't give the girls the money when they asked him.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, despite the Mane Six saving Equestria, Applejack still has to find ways to raise money to keep her farm (as shown in the episode "The Best Night Ever").
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the main characters often find themselves worrying about food or cash because Walking the Earth isn't exactly a job.
  • Played with and discussed in the Steven Universe episode "Frybo." Peedee, Steven's new friend and french fry joint mascot, argues that being a Crystal Gem is not a job because they don't get paid. Steven claims that they get paid in the smiles of the people they save.
    • Peedee then confesses that the money he gets doesn't compensate for what the job takes out of him.
  • In Season 2 of Young Justice, Red Arrow stops a thief robbing a local store, only to take some of the cash himself. He's then confronted by his friends and foster parents, who go What the Hell, Hero?, and he points out that without Green Arrow's bank account supporting him, it's hard to fund the search for his original self.
    • In the comics, Red Arrow also dealt with a drug addiction, so some fans have speculated that Roy's reasoning here wasn't totally altruistic.
  • In Justice League, when Green Lantern John Stewart meets his old friend Rex Mason, Rex remarks that being a superhero must have made John rich. John corrects him and says nobody pays him and he barely owns anything.