To complete our economic-survival issue, we called the financial guru and best-selling author behind CNBC’s The Suze Orman Show (and Kristen Wiig’s uncanny SNL impersonations).
Time Out Chicago: When you were a waitress at Buttercup Bakery in Berkeley, a Merrill Lynch broker lost the $50K your customers loaned you to start your own restaurant. Did you ever get a chance to confront him about what he did?
Suze Orman: No, never. He was still working at Merrill Lynch after I had been hired there as a stockbroker, and then he did something else with another client and they let him go. He then did the same thing at another brokerage firm, and then I lost track of him. I actually heard that he died a few years ago.
TOC: What exactly did he do with your money?
Suze Orman: I told him this was money lent to me by all these people I’d been waiting on, and it was to just sit there safe and sound until they could help me get a restaurant opened. And he said, “How would you like to make a quick $100 a week?” And I said, “Yeah. That’s what I make as a waitress working 40 or 50 hours a week.” He made it look like I was a very sophisticated investor and could afford to lose all $50 thousand. And all the money was lost.
TOC: So we actually have him to thank for the Suze Orman empire.
Suze Orman: Absolutely. We most certainly do because then I thought, Oh, I can do this because brokers, they just make you broker. This was a broker who worked for an honest company, who was not honest. [Merrill Lynch] did give me all my money back eventually. Plus interest.
TOC: To jump to the present day: In January, you said about the election’s effect on the economy, “I don’t see government at all affecting the average person.” But just before the election, you said Obama would be better “especially for the economy.” So…which is it?
Suze Orman: It’s both. It never dawned on me, the lack of oversight. I knew that the subprime market was horrific. But it was beyond my wildest expectations that the administration, the SEC, the rating services, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, all these agencies wouldn’t be looking out for the American people. In the long run, Obama was absolutely the right man for this. His hands are tied, however.
TOC: So the administration’s not gonna make everything all better?
Suze Orman: He will do his utmost. He will try. It is going to be very, very, very, very, very, very, very difficult.
TOC: That’s pretty difficult. What do you mean, his hands are tied?
Suze Orman: It’s like the most magnificent surgeon in the world walks into an operating room, and on the table is somebody with no legs, no arms, his chest is cut open, his head has been smashed, and they’re like, “Put him back together again.”
TOC: That’s a dire portrait of our economic future.
Suze Orman: Well, look at what’s happening in our economy. You have real estate that is collapsing; a credit market that has frozen; students that can’t pay their student loans; the automobile industry that’s about to go under unless we save them again; oil going up, going down; two wars; a stock market that’s going up, going down; a banking industry that is in intensive care; a consumer that’s defaulting on everything; unemployment that’s going through the roof.
TOC: You mention the consumer—let’s bring this to the personal level. What is most people’s single biggest waste of money?
Suze Orman: Oh, Jesus. Probably buying things they don’t need to impress people they don’t even know or like.
TOC: Is there one thing in particular?
Suze Orman: A car. People not only have houses they can’t afford—okay, I get how that happened to them—but on top of that they all have two cars that they have financed over five years, and their payments are $500 or $600 each.
TOC: Your latest book, Women & Money: You got a little flak for that.
Suze Orman: I did? Who gave me flak for a book that has 1.2 million copies in hardback?
TOC: A writer in Time magazine did.
Suze Orman: Yeah, Time magazine who named me one of the hundred most influential people in the world.
TOC: Well, a year before that, one of its reporters wrote that books like this “exaggerate women’s financial foibles at a time when—”
Suze Orman: That one woman or whoever wrote that article should really be so ashamed of herself. If that’s true, why do we have 1.2 million copies in hardback with 1.1 million copies downloaded on Oprah Winfrey’s show the first time with an additional 400,000 the second time?
TOC: Let me ask you to respond to two specific points she raises. First—
Suze Orman: I’m not responding on any level. I will take the word of the millions of women that have read that book over one inept writer. Thank you very much.
TOC: You really think women and men spend and save differently?
Suze Orman: I know it without a shadow of a doubt. Nobody in the world deals with people more than me on a personal level with their money. A woman cosigns a loan for somebody; a man does not. A woman gives of herself more than she gives to herself. A woman honest-to-God believes money is there to take care of her husband, parents, children. Men do not do that, and men have it right.
TOC: My colleagues wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t ask, Do you really love jackets, or is that just an SNL joke?
Suze Orman: No, I love my jackets. I’m always in the same pants and the same boots, but we change the tops for people to think, Oh, this is a new show.
TOC: Do you have a favorite designer?
Suze Orman: Armani, absolutely. Armani and Donna Karan. However, many [nondesigner] jackets I wear are $50, $25. And we don’t pay full retail. The designers give a 30 to 50 percent discount. I don’t pay full—I would not—no matter how wealthy I am.
TOC: About those SNL skits: You recently told the New York Post, “Whatever it is, however bad it is, Wall Street has said worse about me.”
Suze Orman: Correct.
TOC: “Wall Street has been so evil and so nasty about me.” What do you mean by “Wall Street” exactly?
Suze Orman: The writers who wrote for Wall Street, like, for instance, the CBS MarketWatch, I think it was, all of them were saying, How can I give financial advice when the majority of my money is in municipal bonds? That was when Women & Money came out, and I kept saying, “Why risk your money in the market? Things are risky here. Why not just go into municipal bonds at 5.5 percent tax-free, and then you don’t have to think about it when everything collapses?” Well, I wasn’t too far off, was I? But they smashed me for it.
TOC: When you say “they,” do you think it was also a boys’ club of financial advisers?
Suze Orman: No, ’cause women do it, too. Women hate other women’s success more than men hate women’s success. In 1998, The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom was the number-one-selling nonfiction hardback book, according to Publishers Weekly. Do you think BusinessWeek ever reviewed it? No. It was on their business-bestseller list for a year, let alone The New York Times list for almost a year.
TOC: You sound a little resentful.
Suze Orman: I’m not resentful, but they never wanted a woman to succeed. When I first started with 9 Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Steps So You Can Stop Worrying, all the writing was, “Suze-floozy-spirituality. What does money and emotions have to do with anything?” Well, it has a lot to do with everything, if you look at where it’s all ended up.
TOC: Did you intend to come out in New York Times Magazine last year?
Suze Orman: No, not at all. She asked me if I was heterosexual. She didn’t write that, but her exact question to me—[reporter] Deborah Solomon—was, “Are you heterosexual?” And the answer was, “No.” I asked her to please hold it. I didn’t want people to think I was purposely coming out at the exact time I had a book called Women & Money premiering. And I was shocked she didn’t know anyway! If she had watched the two Emmy awards I had won, you hear me say, “K.T., this one’s for you. I love you.”
TOC: “K.T.” could be a guy.
Suze Orman: No, the cameras went right to K.T.!
TOC: Oh, well, there you go. But that was your first direct, public statement.
Suze Orman: Because nobody had ever asked me. And if anybody had ever asked me, I would’ve told them. But Larry King knew I was gay, the Today show people knew, everybody knew I was gay.
TOC: Since then, you’ve taken on a gay-rights mantle: The HRC gave you an award recently.
Suze Orman: Yeah, and it’s not that I’ve taken on that. It was that the HRC as well as GLAAD do very important work, and it’s very sad to me that in Arkansas, Florida, California [and Arizona], they lost. At a time when the country and the world are celebrating that equality has come to the United States with Senator Obama’s election to the presidency, how very sad that we took a hundred steps back in those states. We have to be more vocal. You can’t just sit and be quiet and think everything’s going to be okay ’cause it’s obviously not. And guess what? It wasn’t.
TOC: So are you going to be more vocal for gay rights now?
Suze Orman: Not sure, only because my hands are full with the people who are in debt, with continuing to try and save as many people as we can. And the truth of the matter is I am the Money Lady, and I want to stay the Money Lady. I will do anything and everything I can to help a cause, but I will not go much off target here.
TOC: Your tagline, “People first, then money, then things.” On Oprah in September, you explained that phrase this way: “It means if we cared about people more than we cared about money, we would not be having what happened today. Because the people who run the corporations, if they had cared about you, they wouldn’t have created loans you couldn’t afford.”
Suze Orman: That’s right.
TOC: Now, I’m no economics whiz, but isn’t “money first” what capitalism is all about?
Suze Orman: No, capitalism is about creating more money for the people, but not by breaking their backs, not by making a few more people richer and the majority of people poorer, not by destroying middle America, the middle class. Are you kidding? No. It’s about, yes, in an ethical, honest way, making money. America is the land of dreams, America is the land of hope, not a society where its infrastructure is totally collapsing, where oil companies are making a fortune off of the backs of people driving cars. No, it’s about making money to enhance the lives of people, all people.
TOC: In The Courage to Be Rich, you write, “Our thoughts and feelings about money have become internal obstacles that prevent us from having what we want.” That makes one’s economic situation seem totally self-determined.
Suze Orman: I think it is on some level.
TOC: But aren’t there external factors, like education?
Suze Orman: No, look at Obama, look at Oprah, look at me. At the University of Illinois, I never got a grade above a C. You have people who never went to school that are seriously successful today. You have people with Ph.D.’s galore who don’t have a pot to pee in. I think anything and everything is possible for anybody no matter what and who you are. I believe that.
TOC: What did you learn about finances from growing up in a working-class South Side family?
Suze Orman: Jesus, that money was the key to happiness, or so I thought. My dad worked really hard. He had emphysema his whole life. My parents loved each other very, very much, but they were miserable because there wasn’t any money. My dad was burned severely in a fire, but I didn’t see him cry about that. What I saw him cry about was when he didn’t have money to pay the bills.
TOC: At some point you learned money wasn’t the key to happiness?
Suze Orman: Oh, yeah. Money alone will never make you happy, but lack of it sure will make you miserable.
TOC: Have you ever told your partner, K.T., “Denied!”?
Suze Orman: No. [Laughs] Here’s my biggest problem with K.T.: I can’t get her to approve what she wants. K.T. is the most frugal, responsible person with money I’ve ever seen in my life. She will check every statement. If it is off by 25 cents, she will go to the bank and she will stand in line until she gets her 25 cents back, okay? She will go through every bill. If we don’t need it, she denies me.