Although Suze Orman has written more than a dozen books over the last 25 years, her favorite thing to read is people.
She reads millennials taking 30-year mortgages on properties they can’t afford, and she reads people in their 50s and 60s holding on to houses merely because their adult children come home a couple of times a year for holidays.
She reads guys who aren’t C.E.O.s leasing C.E.O. cars, and she reads middle- and working- class women who buy jewelry and spend too much on clothes.
Trusting one’s husband with money is another thing she just can’t deal with. “Women may fake orgasms,” she said during a series of interviews last week. “Men fake their finances.”
Not that she knows from personal experience. Ms. Orman, whose wife, K.T. Travis, manages her business, loves telling people she’s a “68-year-old virgin.”
When the economy is good, Ms. Orman’s business does fine. But your bust is her boom.
That’s when she emerges as the personal-finance equivalent of Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction”: the suave, self-confident fixer who saves the day when two unfortunate gangsters wind up with a dead guy in the back of a car.
She will stand over you, telling you how to clean the blood off the seat, but you’ll do the job yourself. When it’s over, she will spray you down with water, and send you off in clothes that cost less, wiping away your illusion of being a big shot.
Last Wednesday, Ms. Orman sat in the living room of the Bahamas home where she’s mostly lived since 2015, delivering a virtual master class in conjunction with the 92nd Street Y. She had on the trademark gold earrings she has worn since 1990, a black cotton and leather jacket from Mackage (“eight or 10 years old” and “under $500,” she noted) and a pair of brown glasses from 141 Eyewear.
Ms. Travis stood by, and Ms. Orman discussed — what else? — managing money during the coronavirus pandemic. She gave much advice and lamented continually why more people don’t listen to her until it’s too late.
“You’ve heard me say for years, you need to have an eight-month emergency fund,” she said. “If you had an eight-month emergency fund, you wouldn’t be freaked out about paying your mortgage, or your rent or your bills or anything. But so many of you didn’t. You had $150,000 coming in a year, $200,000, whatever it is, and your bills were exorbitant because you know and I know that you were spending more money than you had coming in, and now, maybe for the first time in your life, you still have all these bills that have to be paid, you don’t have any money to pay them with, and you’re totally freaked out.”
Ms. Orman speaks in superlatives and tops them off with big gesticulations. She loves a rhetorical question to which the answer more often than not is “no.”
Want to get her approval for a two-week jaunt to Australia?
Want to take a big loan so you can buy a house just to flip it?
“She’s a naysayer,” said David Zaslav, a friend and the president and chief executive of Discovery Communications. “The majority of the financial market is driven by commission and convincing you how you can do more by spending more, and Suze is a great voice as an equalizer. And when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the people who listened to Suze were OK. They weren’t buying houses they couldn’t afford, they weren’t overleveraged.”
Now, Mr. Zaslav surmised, Ms. Orman is reconnecting with America because of a pandemic in which “all of our lives have gotten smaller, with her emerging as the nagging conscience we can’t get rid of.” This personality, he noted, developed from her own history of reduced circumstances.
Ms. Orman grew up with two older brothers on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was a secretary who sold Avon cosmetics for extra money. Her father owned a chicken shack that burned down twice. He didn’t have insurance on it and lost everything. “One catastrophe after another,” she said.
After high school, Ms. Orman went to the University of Illinois, Champaign and graduated in 1976 with a degree in social work. She moved to Berkeley, Calif., where she borrowed $50,000 to start a restaurant.
It didn’t work out because the money evaporated after she handed it to a broker at Merrill Lynch, who used it to trade speculative options, she said.
That taught Ms. Orman a couple of things. First, that investors who don’t understand what is being done with their money are the most likely to lose it. Second, that if the idiot she trusted with it was capable of getting a job in finance, so was she.
Soon, she got her own training in finance at Merrill Lynch. She became an account executive there, specializing in retirement planning. In 1983, she moved over to Prudential as a vice president.
“Which really is a bogus term,” she said, “because it only has to do with how much commission you make, but that’s beside the point.”
Four years later, she left to start her own advisory firm, the Suze Orman Financial Group.
There, she began writing and distributing booklets of financial advice to clients. They seemed to love them. So she found a literary agent, Linda Mead, and pitched her an idea for a book about long-term-care insurance.
Ms. Mead thought the subject was too dreary. She advised Ms. Orman to do a book of more general financial advice for boomers.
Few publishers were interested, but Ms. Orman managed to strike a $15,000 deal with a small house, Newmarket Press, whose publisher, Esther Margolis, had worked with Jacqueline Susann and saw in Ms. Orman a similar ability to connect with women other publishers ignored.
Ms. Orman toured the country and went on Q2, the sister channel of QVC. When the book, “You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It,” became a best seller, she went to meet a better-known agent, Amanda Urban, known as Binky.
It was love at first bite.
First, she walked into Ms. Urban’s office and was impressed with the way she chewed someone out on the phone. Then Ms. Urban told her to lose 30 pounds.
To Ms. Orman, that was a sign she would keep it real.
Ms. Orman then told Ms. Urban a few things. First that she was a lesbian, which she worried may get in the way of her becoming a brand-name personality. Second, that she could not write.
Ms. Urban was thrilled. “Finally,’” she said “an author who knows she can’t write!”
By 2002, Ms. Orman was hosting her own Saturday night show on CNBC, where she took calls from viewers who largely asked for permission to buy things that they knew they couldn’t afford.
“Are you kidding me?” she would say. “That is the stupidest idea I ever heard. “
When they didn’t follow her advice and wound up in bad shape, Ms. Orman was sympathetic. But she never hesitated to say “I told you so.”
The Chauffeur Knows
“You want to know about a wealthy person,” Ms Orman said last week. “Talk to the driver.”
She has one for every city she has ever lived in.
Andy Siegel, 57, chauffeurs her around Miami. He has driven Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart but says Ms. Orman is the only one who’s ever become a real friend.
“You’ve got to handle celebrities with kid gloves, but she makes it easy,” he said. “You just got to do what she wants you to do and then everything’s good.”
That means “do not ever look at your phone, when you’re with her, because it’ll be the last time you ever drive her. And do not ever, ever, go through a yellow light.”
After Ms. Orman and Ms. Travis sold properties in New York and Miami and moved full-time to the Bahamas, Mr. Siegel continued to serve as a kind of valet, shipping food and goods to her that she can’t get locally.
Her diet, he said, is almost compulsively healthy. No candy, no alcohol. She doesn’t even really approve of coffee, although that has less to do with blood-pressure issues than the amount of money people spend on it at Starbucks.
“It’s not even the coffee they’re buying — it’s the status and a place to go,” she said, noting that $100 a month placed into a retirement account accruing at 10 percent a year for 40 years (the last seven have been 14.3 percent) would bring a person $560,000.
Ayanna Benjamin, 36, preferred Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s where she went daily before appearing in one of a series of videos Ms. Orman did with domestic violence survivors, in a project produced by the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Avon. When the taping was done, Ms. Orman told Ms. Benjamin to stay in touch.
“She asked me to email her, but no one got in touch to give me her email,” Ms. Benjamin said in an interview.
A few months later, she got an invitation to go see Ms. Orman at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. There, Ms. Benjamin was ushered backstage. The first words out of Ms. Orman’s mouth were: “Why haven’t you emailed me?”
Within weeks, they were texting regularly.
Ms. Orman bought Ms. Benjamin a coffee machine and shipped it to her house. When Ms. Benjamin followed her advice to stop overspending on clothes, Ms. Orman sent her two pairs of jeans that she said were great and would last a really long time. “Gap, I think,” Ms. Orman said.
When Ms. Benjamin went to City College. Ms. Orman paid her student loan. When Ms. Benjamin graduated, Ms. Orman and Ms. Travis were in the audience.
Ms. Orman and Ms. Benjamin do a fair amount of bickering.
“The thing about Suze is, she knows how to flip a $20,” Ms. Benjamin said. “She knows how to make money, and if you don’t listen, she’s going to make you feel. When I’m bad, she’ll hang up the phone, and I know. She’s not with that.”
Celebrities get free counsel, too.
In 2008, Ms. Orman swooped in to help Kathy Griffin when a bad manager mishandled her money. Later, Ms. Griffin connected her to Sia.
Occasionally, Ms. Orman has misfired. In 2012, she introduced her own debit card. It was called Approved and geared at people who had been unable to build credit. There were fees, but lower than those for other cards attached to celebrities. Still, she was pilloried for one: $2 per call to customer service representatives. The venture lost money — $4 million of her own, according to Ms. Orman — and the card was discontinued two years later.
“It was so sad,” she said.
Protecting Her ‘Peeps’
One of Ms. Orman’s biggest mantras is that no one should really retire until they’re 70.
She’s still 13 months away from that, but when she and Ms. Travis moved to the Bahamas, it did signal that she was slowing down somewhat.
The “only thing to do,” she said in an interview before the Y appearance, “was fish.”
For a while that made her happy. Particularly when she began beating all these butch guys in wahoo competitions. But eventually people started saying, “‘Suze do this,’ ‘Suze do that,’” and the answer, she said, was “why not?”
In February, she published another book: ”The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+: Winning Strategies to Make Your Money Last a Lifetime.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and she wound up being as in demand as Lysol wipes and rescue dogs.
Hoda Kotb wanted her on the “Today” show. She started doing hits with CNN and MSNBC. PBS booked her to shoot yet another special.
Some of Ms. Orman’s advice has shifted since the Great Recession of a decade ago. The coronavirus has led her to the belief that having an emergency fund for food and health care is more important than concerns over debt. That’s why she’s telling people in financial trouble to scrape their money together and put it aside for emergencies, regardless of the damage it may do to a FICO score.
“Can you believe Suze Orman’s telling you to ‘please use your credit cards’?” she said on “Today.” “And only pay the minimum amount due. You might even want to call your credit card companies and ask them to expand your credit limit.”
Those who are in a slightly better situation frequently ask Ms. Orman what they should do about their stock holdings. Once upon a time, Ms. Orman was an evangelist for municipal bonds and an opponent of the stock market. But that changed as the interest on them descended to “almost nil,” as she put it.
So Ms. Orman’s recommendation now is to dollar-cost average in the stock market: purchasing a little bit every month, mostly in index funds, regardless of whether markets rise or fall.
That happens not to be her plan for her own money. She bought a huge number of stocks between February and March and made what she says was a “serious sum of cash.”
Then, when she became convinced several weeks ago that the market was overbought, she sold most of them.
“But you have to remember,” she said from the Bahamas, “most of my peeps only have money in 401(k)’s or I.R.A.s. They are in index funds. If they get out, they will never get back in.”
And, she said, “I don’t need the money that is in the market. That’s not true of my peeps.”
Nor is she going to get into speculative trading, plunking money down on Royal Caribbean, which day traders have made a killing buying up, selling off and then shorting numerous times over the last two months.
“Are you kidding?” she said, separating the words out for maximum effect. “I wouldn’t touch it. I’m never taking a cruise again in my life.”
Recently, one of her cousins called to say that she’d bought a pile of Delta stock, which has tumbled. “I said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!’”
As the market rallied in recent weeks, Ms. Orman became increasingly convinced we haven’t reached the bottom.
Partly because she considers the federal response to the coronavirus to be disastrous. And don’t get her started on the election.
“You still have people who want to vote for Trump. You still have people who think he’s doing a great job,” she said. “I see a trail of devastation that he left, of people’s lives that they won’t get back, they won’t get their jobs back, they won’t recover from this.”
She wants to live in a world where taxes on the wealthy “skyrocket,” even if she no longer has any faith about where her dollars are going. “I don’t know where the money goes,” she said. “None of it makes sense to me.”
She wants to believe “everything happens for the best” and that we will emerge a stronger country from all this.
But the more likely diagnosis for how this crisis will shake out, she said, is “the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Sorry.”