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If it were easy to separate emotions from money decisions, people would probably be a lot more financially stable. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be very interesting to watch a TV show in which struggling families are given briefcases full of $101,000 and told anything they don’t keep will be given to another family in need. In the absence of emotion, those families might just keep the money and address their financial woes with it.

Of course, such a decision is a lot messier than it should logically be, as CBS’s new reality show “The Briefcase” exhibits when it presents families with precisely that dilemma. In the premiere episode, which airs at 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Kim and Joe Bergin struggle with whether they should keep the money to save their business, manage their medical expenses and chip away at their massive debt or if they should give some or all of it to another struggling family, Cara and Dave Bronson. What they don’t know is that the Bronson family also received a briefcase and is trying to make the same decision.

If you doubt how difficult such a decision would be, you might change your mind within minutes of starting this show, which features Kim, Joe, Cara and Dave in tears quite often. Trying to decide what to do with the money makes Kim Bergin physically ill at one point, and the tears continued to flow weeks after she and Joe met the Bronsons and shared their decisions.

“I’m crying now,” she said in a phone call on May 21, when she and Joe recounted the experience to Credit.com. “It’s still so emotional.”

The Bergin Family

Kim and Joe Bergin live in Matthews, N.C., with their three teenage daughters. They own an ice cream truck business that has fallen on hard times, which were compounded by trucks falling into disrepair and Joe getting in a car accident that prevented him from working for three months. They rarely have enough money to cover their monthly expenses.

Before any of this happened, the Bergins said they didn’t know how they were going to get out from under the more than $140,000 they had in debt (including their mortgage).

“We felt like we had a black cloud hanging over us,” Kim Bergin said. “My husband is the hardest-working person I know, and we could never get ahead. … This show brought this beautiful light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Bergins were cast in “The Briefcase” under the impression they were participating in a documentary about Americans struggling with their finances, so when a producer of the show arrived with the briefcase of $101,000 and told them their options, they were stunned. (They got to spend $1,000 immediately and had 72 hours to decide what to do with the remaining cash, and they received information about the Bronsons along the way.)

“The first thing was really the unknown,” Joe Bergin said of the experience. “You just assume the family is more deserving than you, you assume that they’re worse off than you, and the way I was reared, I don’t deserve this money because I didn’t earn it.” He also had to think about the message he wanted to send his kids in the decision to keep the money or give it away. “A lot of that was going on in my head … it was very, very, very emotional, up and down.”

The Bronson Family

BRONSONS1

At first, the families knew nothing about each other. The Bergins eventually learned that the Bronsons lived in Manchester, N.H, with a 2-year-old son and another child on the way. Cara works nights shifts as a nurse, and Dave is a stay-at-home dad. He lost one of his legs because of injuries he sustained fighting in Iraq in 2005, and he hasn’t been able to find work because of the ongoing struggles with his medical conditions.

Both families went through a wide range of emotions during the 72 hours they had to decide what to do with the money, but the experience didn’t end with their decisions.

“I’ve changed with Kim, as far as my involvement in the finances and things like that,” said Joe Bergin, who basically had no role in the family finances prior to filming the show. “[I’m] definitely more proactive with it — more discussion time and helping her absorb all the stress.”

As emotionally trying as the show clearly was, the Bergins said they were grateful to have the experience, and they felt that way well before they learned that the Bronsons had also been going through the same thing.

“You always wonder what you would do in a situation like that, and until you are in it you just don’t know,” Joe Bergin said. “Just my outlook towards people in need, it just has changed. I used to just blow it off, and now you look at this a little differently.”

That was the idea, according to executive producer Dave Broome, who is best known for being a creator of “The Biggest Loser.”

“Money is a great opportunity for you to talk about your values in your life — your needs, your wants,” he said. He said he hopes viewers come away from the show with a renewed faith in humanity, as he experienced. “I was very, very emotionally affected by making this show like you wouldn’t believe.”

The show premieres Wednesday, May 27 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.

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Images courtesy CBS

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