Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan, Part 2

[This is the second part of a two part review of Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan. If you haven't already, you might want to read Part 1 first.]

In general, Suze Orman’s lack of candor can only be inferred from the advice she gives. For example, at several points in 2009 Action Plan she brings up the idea of taking out loans from a 401(k) plan and using the proceeds to, for example, pay down other debt. (For the uninitiated, a loan from a 401(k) plan is just what it sounds like. You allocate some of your 401(k) account to a loan to yourself, which you pay back with interest.) In every case she is firm in her rejection of the idea, even to pay off credit card debt charging 32% interest (p. 59.)

On its face this advice is nuts. Taking out a loan from your 401(k) frivolously, to go on a cruise perhaps, is clearly a poor idea. But within the realm of debt a 401(k) loan is almost certainly the best deal going and using it to pay off a loan with a Tony Soprano interest rate is just about as clear a no-brainer as you can find in personal finance.

So why does Suze Orman wave you off this strategy? Is she nuts? She gives the feeble explanation that in these uncertain times the risk of losing your job, which might mean the loan would be due in 60 days, is too great. That would be a lot more convincing if she did not, in the two ”situations” that immediately follow, discuss withdrawing funds from your retirement accounts for living expenses if you become unemployed.

Reading between the lines, the real reason Orman thinks this is a bad idea becomes clear. She thinks that if you take out the loan and pay off the credit card it will only be a matter of time before you run up the credit card balance again, leaving you with both a large credit card debt and a loan from your 401(k) to pay off. She’s not nuts. She thinks you are. But she can’t say that. So she tells a little white lie and moves on.

Very similarly, she calls using a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit, or a second mortgage) to pay off credit card debt “a dangerous mistake. You are putting your house at risk.” (p. 30.) That’s a common bit of folk wisdom, but it’s wrong. Short of bankruptcy, you are going to have to pay back all the money you owe sooner or later, and it would be helpful if the debt had a lower interest rate in the meantime. If you do go bankrupt, you may or may not be able to keep your house (and if you do it will be without much equity) but whether the debt in question was a second mortgage or unsecured loan will not change the outcome. Again, Orman gives the advice she does because she assumes you have a serious willpower problem. If you refinance your credit card with cheaper debt you will only start spending even more and dig the hole deeper.

Do all of Orman’s millions of readers have that sort of psychological dysfunction? For all I know, they do. She certainly has a devoted following who apparently find her advice useful. Even so, I would be a lot happier if somewhere near the beginning of her books she said something like “this book isn’t for everybody” and explained the sort of self-destructive behaviors her work was meant to address. Like they say, the first step is admitting you have problem. But Suze Orman admits nothing. She is like the wife of the compulsive gambler who tells her husband she doesn’t want to visit Las Vegas because she doesn’t like the desert climate. While preaching the importance of honesty and being realistic about your finances, she gives advice that is, in fact, an elaborate and disguised work-around to compensate for her readers’ presumed shortcomings.

Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan ends with the platitude that you should “always choose to do what is right, not what is easy.” Sometimes what is right is hard and uncomfortable. It might be hard to hear that your favorite money guru occasionally gives bad advice or that you are acting irrationally, but if it is the truth, it needs to be said. Like the lady says “The lies need to stop.”

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