The Famous Suze Orman

Some days I agonize over what to write about. Other days the decision is made for me.  Yesterday’s Sunday New York Times Magazine had a long story on Suze Orman, so this is one of those days without agony.

The genre of the article can probably best be described as celebrity profile.  It’s not quite a puff piece.  It mentions just enough minor flaws to give its NYTimesBldgByLuigiNovi-Nightscream subject some character and the author does her journalistic duty by mentioning that Orman once did advertising for GM and certainly does what she does for the money.

On the other hand, there is not much in the way of discussion of what Orman has to say, other than what is necessary to explain what it is that she does for a living to the few readers of the Times who have not yet heard of her.  Mostly, the article is about the fact that she is wildly popular right now, without much discussion of why.

Which might strike a person as a little odd if they thought of Orman as a writer or pundit.  It would be hard to imagine a story on a spike in popularity of, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Rush Limbaugh, without a few paragraphs on what made them particularly big just now and maybe even a hint of criticism from a responsible third party.

But Orman is no longer, apparently, a mere mortal with a point of view to share.  She is a personality, famous not so much for doing anything in particular as for just being Suze Orman.  The Times does not mention the minor controversy recently around Orman’s new advice on paying credit cards.  (Discussed here and elsewhere.)  But it does talk about her hair, clothes, jewelry, homes in New York and Florida, on-air vs. off-air personalities, and, of course, her love life.  It’s the sort of information you might get if you met a friend of hers and gushingly asked “What’s she really like?”

And the article tells us that she is rich.  How rich? Interesting question. “Orman, who is 57, estimates her net worth at about $20 million (though even a cursory look at the numbers suggests she is worth much more than that).”  Cursory indeed.  For example, two years ago in the same New York Times Magazine she pegged her wealth at $32 million.  But according to Wikipedia, a year ago she described her net worth as “more than $10 million.”

I don’t care how rich she is, but I have a passing interest in her level of candor, particularly given her penchant for preaching the importance of honesty about money.  A quick back-of-the-envelope suggests she is making $10M+ a year and has been doing so for a while, between speaking fees ($80K a pop), royalties on nine bestsellers, her CNBC show and hawking stuff on QVC including a $48 “FICO Kit.” Unless she is giving massively and anonymously to charity (which is possible) it seems that she is habitually low-balling her wealth and how much she is making.

The author of the article doesn’t call Orman on that, but she does point out that Orman now tells a very different story about the end of her father’s life than what she recounted in one of her books.

I asked Orman about the seeming contradiction in facts, and she passed it off blithely, even likably. “Oh, who knows what I said in the book,” she replied.

Again, like her net worth, this is not a topic of great import. But Orman has made her personal story part of her routine patter, and this, rather than more substantive parts of what Orman has to say, is what the Times decided to write about.  The piece ends two paragraphs later, with the reporter weakly weaving the updated, presumably true, and sadder, version of her father’s life into an attempt at insight into Orman.

I have a hard time imaging what other nonfiction writer could be caught more or less making stuff up in a book and be treated so nicely by the Times.  This is the newspaper that once ran a correction because it had gotten the number of possible positions for the Rubik’s Cube wrong.  (It’s actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000.)

The truth is that the Times just doesn’t consider being in a “unique position as the people’s financial planner” to be all that important.  Orman is interesting in a sort of off-beat celebrity sort of way, but what she says is not serious stuff.  I can easily imagine a more or less identical article being written about a newly popular TV chef or an Oscar winning actress.

I think that Orman’s subject matter should be taken seriously, but she as a personage much less so.

[Photo: Luigi Novi – Nightscream]


  • By Rob Bennett, May 18, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    I am not able to come up with any explanation that truly makes sense of this sort of thing.

    My best guess is that the people writing the profiles do not feel confident enough in their understanding of personal finance to feel qualified to question someone who makes so much money offering advice on it.

    People are intimidated by this subject. We need to get over that if we are to make progress. Because many of the experts really do not understand things well and need to be exposed to some hard questioning to improve. The “experts” speak with far more certainty than is justified and the non-experts are far too inclined to defer to them (at least on the money questions).

    Everyone wants either to be a guru or to bow down before a guru. And it is the guru thing that is the biggest thing holding us back.

    No more money gurus!


  • By Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA, May 18, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    Great post as usual, Frank. Of course Ms Orman gets that sort of treatement – she’s FABULOUS!

    @Rob brings up an issue that I sometimes struggle with… on the one hand, as @Rob points out, the gurus tend to be too certain in their pronouncements which tend to be not quite on target (or dangerously not on target for many situations), and so it seems that the investing public would be better off without the gurus.

    On the other hand, much of what the gurus say isn’t necessarily harmful – the spirit of the message is actually pretty good for a broad spectrum of the audience. With that in mind, it seems that the gurus are doing a good thing by guiding the masses toward particular actions.

    I suppose the real problem here is the underlying message that managing your own financial situation should be as simple, straightforward and “one size fits all” as growing your own garden: as long as you plant at the right time and fertilize and weed as we tell you, you’ll have a bumper crop just when you need it.

    Obviously every person’s situation is going to be different and will require tweaking from the mass broadcast message – and many folks are astute at figuring that out. Unfortunately, far more folks are not so astute, and at the same time this group doesn’t place appropriate value on tailored advice or the effort on their own part that it takes to do it right (heck, Suze will tell me what to do for free or for $19.95 in her book, why should I pay an advisor?).

    So I guess my opinion is that, in the long run the gurus do more good than harm, but they don’t go far enough to put emphasis on the “rest of the message” which should be: “While I’m giving you a start and a broad overview, you’re going to have to put some effort into this for yourself and/or hire someone to help you.”


  • By Dave C., May 18, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    I think our society has far too many ostriches to put in the effort to learn more and validate the advice of the “professionals”. I think most people would rather just stick their head in the sand and trust that they information they are told is correct and appropriate for their situation.

  • By LHM, May 18, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    You read my mind-golly:
    You said Suze should say this-
    “While I’m giving you a start and a broad overview, you’re going to have to put some effort into this for yourself and/or hire someone to help you.”

    While I was pondering a response to yet another good, frank post (pun intended)you wrote the above which nicely sums up my thoughts.

    I confess, last year I got started thinking seriously about personal finance. I grabbed a Suze Orman book because that was what was available in our little library. There was an offer for a TD Ameritrade account in her “Save Yourself” program which I opened on the last possible day. I read her book (thinking some of it pretty light weight), funded my account and have earned my $100 promised bonus. I went on to read and read and read discovering Get Rich Slowly, The Simple Dollar, (Rob Bennet) and now this blog. What a fun trip. Thanks guys.

    I never went back to Suze except to make sure I got my $100 :) but I sure have learned a lot along the way.

    I have tried everything from coupons (probably not worth it for me except certain items matched with sales) to balance transfer arbitrage which let us pay off our mortgage in five years – yes, the reminder of our house mortgage is on a cradit card at 0% with no balance transfer fees instead of the 6% we were paying and will be paid off before incurring much interest. (compare $150 worth of interest charges with say $80,000 in mortgage interest! Now that is serious money savings!)

    Rob I am glad to see you do recommend paying off the mortgage early in some cases. Six percent guaranteed savings when stocks were tanking and CDs were paying nothing seemed prudent. To say nothing of the FREEDOM experience.

    Suze is indeed light weight, comes across as anti-men in some ways (no I don’t feel the need for an account excluding my husband) but she did get me thinking about a will, an investment account and personal finances in general.

    Do I read her anymore? Nope. Got you guys.

    People enter PF from all kinds of gates. Some will never get beyond Suze’s help. The rest of us are following a different path. You both have your place.

  • By SJ, May 18, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    Rubik’s cube too complicated…

    I have been behind on NYtimes w/ my traveling and this was a fun read.. lots i ididn’t know about her;seeing how my mom is a fan…

    Better to show up someway than never =)

  • By matt, May 25, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    Thanks for the post. From the article: “Karen Fonner, who works with Orman at QVC, recalls that at the end of a workday about eight years ago Orman told her that she craved a hot dog. Fonner took her to a hot-dog stand and watched — everyone in the vicinity watched — as Orman devoured six hot dogs.”

    I’ve never.

  • By Chris, June 4, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    Print media wonders why they can’t maintain subscribers when there is no longer the hard hitting journalist that digs deep and gives you information you wouldn’t have the time or resources to obtain yourself. Now it is, how do we keep our advertisers happy, what information can we use from the government without checking the sources ourself and how can we puff up celebreties that we know our readers already like.

    About the only news source that really hits that square on is Frontline on PBS. Whether you agree with their concensus or feel they lean to left their research is deep and thorough.

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