At 30, Suze (sounds like "Suzie") was a waitress earning $400 a month. Now she's one of the world’s top motivational speakers challenging her audiences to get savvy about their finances.
by Danielle Cantor
The CNBC personal-finance editor and two-time Emmy-winning host of "The Suze Orman Show" has written nine consecutive New York Times best sellers and contributes a monthly column to O: The Oprah Magazine. She has hosted and co-produced seven PBS specials based on her books and is the single most successful fund raiser in the history of public television. Orman, whose parents emigrated from Russia, credits her family's economic struggles (and some good old-fashioned chutzpah) for her ability to spread the financial gospel in language anyone can understand.
How did you become a financial expert?
SO: Through a fluke set of circumstances. In 1980 I was a waitress at the Buttercup Bakery in Berkeley, California, making $400 a month. I was 29 years old, and I decided that if someone gave me the money I could own my own restaurant. The people I'd been waiting on for seven years rallied and gave me $7,000 worth of checks. But within four months all the money was lost because of a bad broker. So I interviewed for a job at Merrill Lynch to pay back all the people who had helped me.
What drives you? Is it a passion for money or a belief in empowering women?
SO: I wish it were as simple as empowering women. They have to be very careful, because if they become empowered with money, then their male counterpart will start to feel unempowered. My work empowers both men and women equally. I do not believe in segregating money. Women should become powerful with it, but not to the exclusion of men. When you empower partners equally, that's how the problems of money go away in a family.
What was your parents' relationship with money?
SO: They had a difficult time. In the 1920s and '30s, my father was going to go to law school. But his father needed money, so he gave up his tuition and wound up staying in the chicken business for the rest of his life. Money wasn't really discussed, but I knew the reason my parents were so unhappy was not because they didn't love each other. It was because they didn't have any money.
I have to be very grateful to my parents for poverty. I didn't grow up with money, or marry it. I believe that the people who call into my show can relate to me because I can relate to them. My fabric is the same as theirs.
You don't mince words when you talk to women about finances. Do you find your tough-love style helps drive your message home?
SO: It's not a style, it's really who I am. My criticism isn't given to belittle people, but to help them be better than they think they can be. When it comes from that sincere place of wanting to help people, they take it in and appreciate it. I feel what this world needs more than anything today is a voice of truth, of simplicity, one in which people can understand the words being used. Someone who tells it like it is. To be consistent with that tone, it has to be your natural personality. That's who I am, thank God, and I pray that's always who I'll be.
Who do you consider financial role models for women today?
SO: Me. Other role models are people who email me, who lost everything and recovered. Women who have the will to go on and develop a plan. The role models are the everyday women who against all odds have risen to the occasion and played the cards they've been dealt, knowing that in the end they will win their hand.
You often present financial advice in a way that makes it personal and relatable-by offering other women's stories. Are those true accounts?
SO: Names have been changed, but every story is a true account. One doesn't need to fabricate stories about money-they're just so out there, you couldn't make them up. One woman who lived in a little town made $18,000 a year at a construction company. Her husband got ill. The closest hospital was about two hours away, and she moved into a motel near the hospital. She contracted AIDS while giving him a blood transfusion. She ran up motel bills of about $25,000. He wound up dying. While he was in the hospital, their little girl was in a car accident and died. And after she came back home, both of her parents died within a week of each other. So she was all alone and $25,000 in debt. People advised her to declare bankruptcy, but she didn't want to. And she was able to pay off the money. The last time I talked to her, she had an extra $50 a month to invest. The lesson is, no matter what happens to you, you have what it takes to recover.
What are some of the most common mistakes women make?
SO: Believe it or not, they still may do the household finances but not be involved with the investment finances. I believe it's up to us to change the role that money plays in our lives-it is something we're entitled to talk about, to know about. Women should be able to do what they want and not be afraid of the ramifications.
What are some key concerns for women at various stages of their lives?
SO: I think a concern for a woman in her 20s is not being willing to give up a few dollars today in order to protect herself tomorrow. They're more interested in showing the world what they have than who they are, and they don't understand that their younger years are the most important investment years of their life. As women get older, they get wrapped up in taking care of children, careers, aging parents. They stop looking after their financial babies and turn decision-making control over to others. You cannot give up power over your money; you cannot get too busy to pay attention to it. Take the time to find out who's handling your money and what they're doing with it. You have to stay involved with your money at every moment in your life. When you're disengaged from your money, it's a sign that you're disengaged from who you are.
Is there a single best piece of financial advice for all women-regardless of their age or economic status?
SO: They'll never be powerful in life until they're powerful over their own money-how they think about it, feel about it and invest it.
What's the best way to invest money and ensure financial security?
SO: One has to ask, "What money?" When the question "How many of you have debt?" was asked recently in a room of 2,500 women, 100 percent of them raised their hands. If you have debt, you have no money. The number-one move to make is to get yourself out of debt. Also, put money in the stock market that you don't need for at least 10 years and be willing to watch it change. You have to be an "on-it" investor. The best investment is to buy a house, before anything else, and pay off the mortgage. Nothing makes a woman more powerful than a place to call her own.
Do you feel that women are listening to you?
SO: Absolutely. And I think men are listening as well.