Category: Suze Orman

Suze’s Surprising Credit Card Controversy

Normally, I have the criticizing personal financial gurus business all to myself.  I like to think this is because I am the only one who sees the faults in their advice, or alternatively, that I am the only one bold enough to say the emperor has no clothes on.  But it is also possible I am the only one who takes them seriously enough to bother writing about what they say.C Cards 2 (Andres Rueda)

This is not the case with Suze Orman’s recent advice on credit cards and emergency funds. It took a while, but quite a few people thought it was important enough to comment on critically.  Welcome to my world.

It started with Orman’s March 1 Suze Scoop.  There’s been some disagreement as to what exactly she told her readers to do, so if you are as obsessed about this stuff as I am, click on that link and come back when you are done.  In the event that you have more balance in your life, I’ll quote the first two paragraphs.

If you have an unpaid credit card balance and not much saved up in emergency savings I need you to listen up. My advice has changed.
I want you to only pay the minimum due on your credit card balance and instead make it your top priority to build as much of an emergency cash fund as you can.

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Odds and Ends

A few things too small for posts of their own have been cluttering up my (virtual) desk.

CreditMattersBlog today has a post on a column a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal by our friend Brett Arends on using your credit cards to raise money for an emergency fund.  It’s a stupid as it sounds.  The column, I C Cards (Andres Rueda) mean, not the blog post.  I have a rule not to pick on the same guy twice in a week, so I will keep from saying anything bad about Arends.  I’ll just give you a link to where somebody else does it.  (Note to any WSJ editors reading this: I would be happy to do Arends’ job for whatever you are paying him.)

CreditMattersBlog apparently noticed the Arends piece from a post by Liz Pullman Weston at MSN Money with the (for me) irresistible title “Why Suze Orman is Wrong – Again”.  In case you missed it, good ol’ Suze put out some advice on March 1 that caused quite a buzz.

I want you to only pay the minimum due on  your credit card balance and instead make it your top priority to build as much of an  emergency cash fund as you can.

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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.”

Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan, Part 1

I have only respect and contempt for Suze Orman.

On the positive side, it would be hard not to admire Orman’s talent and achievements. She is undoubtedly the most effective and popular personal finance guru in America today. Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan is her seventh consecutive New York Times bestseller. She has won two Emmys. Last year Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. To put that last achievement in perspective, consider that the Pope did not make the cut.

Alas, this highly tuned and powerful machine is used to bring her vast audience fairly mediocre and amateurish advice. At best, what Orman tells her readers and viewers is pedestrian and obvious. At other times it is dangerously specific, assuming unstated facts about the reader’s situation. And once in a while it is just plain wrong. But wasting her abilities with weak content is not the chief reason I have contempt for her. She also has a righteous new-age shtick about courage and honesty which is not only grating, it is hypocritical.

Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan is her reaction to the current economic crisis. (Of course, given its success, I would expect an Action Plan to appear annually every January from now on, crisis or no.) It is one of many quickie books on similar themes that have appeared in the last few months. Orman’s was finished on November 19, 2008 and on bookshelves as a paperback by mid-January 2009. As would be expected, it is not very long and lacks much in the way of a coherent organization. The great majority of the book is in the form of an extended FAQ, with “situations” that could have easily been phrased as readers’ questions followed by short answers or “actions.”

The slim volume does contain a few longish bits of advice and explanation. One of these is the second chapter of the book, entitled “A Brief History of How We Got Here.” It is not merely brief (11 pages) but shallow as well, what you might expect from a bright high school student asked to summarize the economic situation based on accounts taken from one of our nation’s lesser tabloids. Admittedly, Wall Street and the economy are not Suze Orman’s fields of expertise, but this section betrays a remarkable lack of knowledge about how indeed we got here.

For example, Orman explains that in reaction to the low interest rates of the middle of this decade, the “too-smart-for-their-own-good minds of the financial sector” “bundled the prime and sub-prime mortgages into one investment, called a Credit Default Obligation (CDO).” Actually, CDO stands for Collateralized Debt Obligation, prime and sub-prime mortgages are generally segregated (not that that helped) and CDOs became the standard method for structuring mortgage bonds twenty five years ago. How CDOs were invented is described entertainingly in Michael Lewis’ bestseller Liar’s Poker (1989) which until recently I had thought everybody involved in finance and over the age of 40 had read.

The Orman view on what went wrong in the global economy begins and ends with American house prices and mortgages. That is like blaming a warehouse fire on faulty wiring without mentioning that the building was full of fireworks and that the sprinkler system failed. But no matter. 2009 Action Plan is for consumers, so limiting the explanation of what went wrong to consumer-oriented factors is not the worst thing imaginable. Orman ends the chapter by summing up that “the mortgage crisis is the most vivid example of how dishonesty and greed leads to financial destruction” and exhorts her readers to become honest with themselves about their own finances.

That’s a sentiment with which it is certainly hard to disagree. Truth and candor is a recurring theme of Suze Orman’s, both in this book and elsewhere. It would be much more convincing if Orman was herself more honest about how her advice about houses has changed over the past few years.

2009 Action Plan tepidly endorses buying a house, saying that “over time a home can be one of the most satisfying investments you can make” (p. 147) and clarifies that your house “will, on average, rise in value at a pace that is only one percentage point above inflation.” (p. 154.) I have no objection to either of those points, but isn’t this the same Suze Orman who called home buying “one of the best known investments” (The Laws of Money, 2003 & 2004, p.131) just a few years ago? In 2009 Action Plan Orman is repeatedly strident about not taking out a loan from your 401(k) or tapping your IRA for any reason short of dire emergency, and yet in The Courage to Be Rich (1999 & 2002) she suggests doing both to raise money for a house down payment (p. 223.) In 2009 Action Plan Orman condemns adjustable rate mortgages and says that a 30 year fixed is a “requirement” for home buyers (p. 148.) In The Courage to Be Rich she discusses both flavors of mortgage favorably and lists reasons you might be better off with an ARM. (p. 254.)

There is no shame in having been much more enthusiastic about houses a few years ago. As far as I can tell, all personal finance writers urged their readers to buy houses in the Good Old Days, and Suze Orman was actually more cautionary than most. And circumstances have indeed changed in the meantime. But for a person who lectures continually about the importance of honesty and speaking the truth about money, would it be too much to expect a modest mea culpa? Wouldn’t her criticism of the “dishonesty” of those who borrowed too much to buy more house than they could afford be more persuasive if she conceded that the chorus of personal finance advisers, Suze Orman included, egged them on?

[Click to the second half of this review here.]

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