How Suze Orman Helped Me Understand My Finances

When I was younger, my first exposure to financial matters was not through my parents or even my family. It was Suze Orman.

When I was commuting to college, I would normally spend whatever free Saturday nights I had at home with my mom watching her show on MSNBC. It was good stuff for somebody who knew nothing about money.

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I think I really liked how shrill and sometimes obnoxious passionate she would become when talking to her audience. Suze spoke in a language a person new to finance would understand. True, it might have been patronizing to experts, but to somebody who had never even heard about saving money, everything she said made sense. She boiled it down in simple terms:

“Debt is bondage.”

“People first, then things, then money.”

“Nobody will care about your money more than you will.”

“Live below your means and within your needs.”

“A man is not a plan.”

“Budgets don’t work. The best way to save is to find pleasure in saving and watching your money grow.”

“The greatest gift you can give to your kids is your own financial security. If you are secure in your old age, you won’t have to burden your kids with your financial problems.”

(Okay, this one above is not a direct quote, but I remember her saying something like this on her show. I remember turning to my mom and saying, “You got that, right?”)

Implicit in her advice was that there was always something you can do. If you get into trouble, it is your responsibility to get out of it. You can take steps to get back into financial shape. I loved that–it meant that I could control my own destiny when it came to money.

I know she’s been in disfavor because she got into a lot of trouble with her debit card, but I think she has done a lot to help women solve their money problems. Yes, she can be abrasive and very in your face about a lot of things, but to me, she was a role model. Here was a woman who I can look up to. She was taking care of her own money and was helping other people take care of their money. At that time, I didn’t see many other female personalities talking so openly about money matters.

More than anything, she was also very instrumental in helping me understand my relationship with money. A lot of times, most of the focus on financial advice is structured around hard, practical things: how to budget, looking at the numbers, what’s in my portfolio, the retirement number I need to hit, etc.

Of course, she also did those things on her show, but most of the time she talked about feelings and how we felt when dealing with overwhelming debt or how to split expenses as a couple without resenting each other. She also talked about how money affects our relationships with family and friends. She went deep into why people were doing what they were doing with their money. She asked a lot of important questions with her guests:

How would you be able to deal with money if you fear it or are not confident with it? If you think dealing with money is a dirty thing, how would you ever feel pride when you’ve hit a savings goal or paid off debt? What are the reasons why you feel you have to blow your hard-earned money on stuff? What’s driving you to go shopping so often and accumulating so much debt? Why do mothers, and especially single mothers, feel the need to spend lavishly on their kids, to the detriment of their own financial health?

I found all this fascinating. I watched the show because I was curious about how other people dealt with their money. People were on the show asking for advice, revealing their problems for all the world to see. To me it seemed like a reality show–and of course it was. In fact, it was really raw and honest because the show dealt with money and the swirling emotions people have about it.

In my case, my feelings about money were shaped by my childhood and the way I saw my parents deal with money. We never talked openly about money in my family, so hearing other people talk about money like that made me realize that I needed to be doing something, too. But back then, personal finance was a world I didn’t know anything about. I never had to deal with issues like that.

Again, at that time, because I was in college and didn’t really have money, I never thought any of her advice applied to me. I was a student, so naturally, the money I was making part-time was meant to fund my undergrad lifestyle. I didn’t need to save yet–there’s lots of time to do that when I’m an adult. Retirement was a foreign concept–I needed to have a career first before I could even think about 401ks! Also, investing was only for the rich–I’m not rich, so her investing advice was useless for me. Forget about buying a house–I was going to live in an apartment first when I get that full-time job.

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To me, the only thing that I took to heart was Suze’ advice on credit card debt. I made sure to pay my balance every month because high interest rates are expensive. She was right. As a first-time credit card user, my interest rates were in the high 20s: 27.99%, in fact. At least, I was smart enough to understand that, first, I had to pay off the balance. Second, paying just the minimum was going to cost me more in the long run.

Looking back now, I wish I had applied more of the advice she had given to others. I really do. I wish I had saved the money I earned, even if I could put away just a few dollars every month. I wish I had gotten over my fear with the stock market or the belief that I was going to be poor for the rest of my life.

Over the years, as I matured and came to understand that I needed to take control of my own finances, I finally took some of what Suze said in her show and her books a little more seriously. I really do think that she was the one person I trusted for money advice, but I didn’t follow her blindly, thank God! (I disagree with her advice that owning a house is important to build wealth.) For the most part, her advice seemed really good, but I realized that some of it might not be right for me because it just didn’t fit with my lifestyle and philosophy–and that was okay. I was confident enough that I could pick the ones that worked for my unique situation and abandon the ones that just doesn’t apply to my case.

Again, Suze’s role in my financial development was emphasizing the power had over my money. As I thought about my situation, I could formulate a plan. After that, all I needed to do was take action and implement them. Since I never got any of this from my parents, I am grateful that I had some kind of support when navigating my personal finances–even if I didn’t know her personally.

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