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If You Knew Suzie



Published September 15, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Every year more and more Americans pay brokers to manage their investment portfolios while receiving most of their financial advice from a TV show. My guess is, a lot of people would be hard-pressed to pick their broker out of a police lineup, but rarely make it through a Saturday night without catching at least a portion of "The Suze Orman Show."

Of course, it's hard to miss, given that CNBC airs it four times in the course of the evening -- at 8, 9, 11 and midnight. I find that a little of the Emmy-winning self-help guru goes a very, very long way. But apparently I'm in the minority on this one. Not only is the show the network's highest-rated weekend offering, it's so popular that four times a night is just not enough; the financial advice-hungry public has demanded more. So, last week, CNBC answered its prayers with the first-ever "Labor Day Suze Orman Show Marathon"! Hey, why send your money to Jerry's Kids when you can put it in T-bills?

Seven straight hours of Suze changes a man. It makes you ask yourself questions. The one I asked myself the most was, "What is it about this woman that makes me want to blow my brains out?"

There may be a handful of you who have not seen the show or heard of Orman. Perhaps you have recently relocated from an Islamic theocracy. Allow me to bring you up to speed: Suze Orman is the Dr. Phil of finance, the Oprah of fiscal self-improvement, the Martha Stewart of moola. Raised in Chicago by working-class Russian Jewish immigrants, she studied social work at the University of Illinois and then moved to Berkeley in 1973. For a while she lived in a Ford Econoline van. She spent seven years working as a waitress at a place called the Buttercup Bakery, but made a fortuitous career switch in 1980.

One day Orman simply presented herself at the local Merrill Lynch, where she was hired "to fill the women's quota," she says. "My manager told me I'd be gone in six months." Instead, she became the place's top seller and got a good look at the business' dark side. "I saw how brokerage firms would unload stocks in their inventory onto their clients," she says. "And I saw how they were not looking out for their best interests."

From there Orman moved to Prudential Bache Securities, where she sold insurance annuities. In 1987 she started her own company, the Suze Orman Financial Group, which she ran for 10 years. Since the mid-'90s, Orman has authored four consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including The Courage to Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance; co-produced a series of successful PBS fundraisers based on her books; and made regular appearances on QVC, where she holds the network's all-time sales record for moving 30,000 books in a single hour. If there's one thing Suze knows, it's how to sell.

But what is she selling? What is it about her approach to personal finance that has endeared her to so many average Americans while sending the needle on my Shystometer into the red? "There's nothing novel about her message," asserts financial writer Stephen Butler in an article on the website PensionDynamics.com called "Orman's Advice Filled With Holes," in which he reviews her latest book. "She basically tells us to invest money instead of spending it foolishly. She includes some psychobabble that prods us down the road to understanding why such a simple, reasonable concept is difficult to embrace." In his analysis of Orman's advice, Butler employs such phrases as "twisted logic," "highly questionable" and "just insane."

Butler is not alone. Jonathan Clements, the Wall Street Journal's personal finance columnist, wrote, "How awful is Ms. Orman's latest book? I can think of much better ways to spend $24.95."

And a few years ago Forbes Magazine published a blistering expose on Orman in which noted columnist William P. Barrett took her to task for numerous mistruths in her official literature and other troubling inconsistencies. Among them: While her literature claimed that the Suze Orman Financial Group continued to provide financial-planning services, it in fact no longer did. Her literature referred to "nearly 1000 new clients" coming on each year. When pressed, Orman said she meant fans who sent her emails and letters. Though her video jackets claimed she had worked in Wall Street institutions for 18 years, the actual figure was seven. Contrary to claims made in her book-jacket bio, Forbes discovered, Orman is not a licensed Commodity Trading Advisor.

I'm not sure which I find more irksome -- Orman's fast and loose way with the facts or her new-agey approach to finances. Do you really want to put your or your family's security in the hands of someone who says things like: "Money has a force to it, an energy field, and I think it responds to you in the same way a human being does. Sometimes it's healthy; sometimes it doesn't feel well. It's attracted to your inner state. When you're feeling great and powerful, money's attracted to you, and when you're feeling powerless and depressed, money is repelled from you."

Are those not seven of the loopiest things you've ever heard said? I mean by anyone, never mind a best-selling financial authority. I suspect there are people who've been put in padded cells all over this country for making less delusional claims. And yet Orman's books are filled with them.

Like many a televangelist, Orman espouses a deeply held belief in the fact that God wants everybody to be rich, that craving wealth is a sign of spiritual health. "The bottom line," she told the San Francisco Examiner, "is this: When you treat something with respect, you bring it toward you. When you know the true value of money, you will know how to create wealth, both inner and outer." All righty, then.

In addition to feeling great and powerful and convincing your money that you respect it, Orman's tips for achieving financial independence include rummaging through your closets for loose change, not buying French baguettes because they go stale in a day or two, switching from olive oil to vegetable oil, and pumping your own gas. Something tells me we are not talking the heir apparent to Alan Greenspan.

When I watch her show, I never cease to marvel at three things: Orman's clothes (she dresses like a refugee from a Eurythmics video), her hair (it appears to be molded from some mysterious manmade substance) and, way scarier than her hair, her hair-trigger wrath.

You think Judge Judy is awesome to behold when she goes ballistic? She looks like Shirley Temple next to Orman when a viewer calls in to her program and presses the wrong button. Two of her rage's favorite targets are brokers with whose counsel she disagrees ("Put that advisor on the back burner -- and turn up the flame!") and former boyfriends who have left debt in their wake.

I thought she was going to spontaneously combust during a recent show when a young woman confessed to cosigning for a loan as a favor to an ex, who had since declared bankruptcy. Her eyes wide and her voice raised, Orman demanded, "Nail him to the wall and do everything in your power to ruin him financially!" Or words to that effect. My notes are a little hard to make out. There was a certain amount of trembling.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: The economy's in shambles. The deficit is spiraling further out of control every day. Decent jobs are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Pretty soon my health insurance will cost more each month than my mortgage. These are troubled times. Can Americans really afford to take advice from someone as seemingly troubled as Suze Orman?

At the risk of repelling money from me, I have to say I find the idea depressing.