Let it not be said that public television stations aren’t attuned to the zeitgeist. Take the choice of which celebrities they trot out during the all-important “pledge week.” Whether it’s New Age flutists, New Age pianists playing at Red Rocks, men with pony tails playing (you guessed it) New Age music in front of the Acropolis, or New Age psychologists encouraging us to find our inner child, the market-savvy folks at public television know just what flavor their viewers fancy.
And the flavor for 1999 is. . . New Age financial gurus. Witness the meteoric ascension of personal finance/spiritualist Suze Orman as a one-stop, one-woman, self-help guide to the world of money. With her energetic exhortations to find personal fulfillment through personal finance, Orman is market mania personified, a Richard Simmons for the 401(k) set.
So who is this Suze person, and why is she on your TV? Born in Chicago into a Jewish immigrant family from Russia, Suze (pronounced “Suzie,” though she ditched the “i” long ago) waited tables for seven years after finishing college. Then she got a job as a stock broker at Merrill Lynch (Suze is “convinced” that she got the job at Merrill just to fill a women’s quota “but who cares?”), then scored a VP slot at Prudential Bache, and eventually left to start her own firm. She burst onto the national scene with 1998’s best-selling book The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom. As they do with most instant celebrities, enterprising journalists dug out “shocking” revelations—Forbes quibbled that she hadn’t worked for the Wall Street firms for as long as she claimed (she now says she worked “with” them), and that she claimed some visitors to her popular Web site as “clients.”
Apparently Orman is quite the storyteller. But that’s just the point—this book is positively jammed with stories (“Amanda’s story” about credit card debt, “Amy’s story” about the costs of divorce, “Wendy’s story” about a woman’s financial problems in the wake of her husband’s heart attack) that are designed to make the financial advice more tangible. The heavy emphasis on stories about women is deliberate. From her press materials and interviews, it is clear that Orman feels her narrative style of financial education, full of anecdotes that focus on how the subject felt about each financial situation, is particularly suited to female readers. These lessons are not merely for you, they are about you.
And they are about something else—spirituality. She asks readers: “What would it take for you to change course in your life? For you to feel rich in every way possible, both in the way your bottom-line numbers read and in your heart, your soul, and the way you live each day?”
The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with courage, which Orman calls the “single most important thing you need in order to change the course of your life.” The titles of the chapters neatly reflect these intertwining tracks of money and spiritual courage. They include (I feel compelled to insert Dave Barry’s caveat that I am not making any of this up): “The Courage to Look Within,” “The Courage to Make Room for More Money,” “The Courage to Connect to the World,” and “The Courage to Have More and to be More,” interspersed with more predictable headings like “Seeking Safety in Bonds” and “Buying a Home.”
But Suze’s moral confusion does not end with mistaking covetousness for valor. In her cosmology, money is also a “life force.” Perhaps Orman is actually offering an echo of an older American tradition, sprung from the Protestant work ethic, re-reconciling the accumulation of capital with spiritual virtue. Perhaps she is redeeming her fellow Boomers from guilt over their growing financial success (it certainly must come as a relief to hear—on PBS, no less—that you can indeed be a good person and a capitalist). Perhaps she is just trying to sell books.
But it doesn’t matter, because there is a crying need for mass-market personal finance education, and a new book in this field needs no apology. Millions of Americans actually pay 20 percent interest every month on credit cards, and the median American credit card holder carries over $3,400 in credit card balances. Suze can feel your pain—she’s been there: “Having been in credit card debt myself. . . I know what it can do, to both your net worth and your self-worth.” And “One of the most disrespectful and powerless ways to live a life is to live a lie, and when you’re mired in credit card debt, I am sorry to say that you are living a lie.”
Suze thus emerges as a kind of Dr. Laura of the checkbook, cajoling her audience toward economic virtue. She knows that for every “millionaire next door” there may be a dozen neighbors with their life savings stuffed in mattresses or tied up in swampland, Beanie Babies, and high-load, high-churn mutual funds. And if New Age pep talks from a non-threatening source is the sugar they need to swallow this medicine, well then so be it. And isn’t it better—for everyone—that this market be served by Suze rather than by the Psychic Friends Hotline?
After all, in addition to the psychological mumbo-jumbo, there is some straightforward, clearly written, and undeniably helpful advice here. She competently explains bonds, stocks, buying a home, and the rudiments of estate planning with an appealing clarity and enthusiasm.
There are some particularly helpful bits. In one of the stories, “Kevin and Suze’s Story” (Note to the talkative: Kevin is a nice young man with whom Suze strikes up a conversation while riding a plane; I’ll bet he didn’t realize at the time that his “story”—in which he unwittingly sabotages his parents’ retirement plans—would later be read by millions), she offers a simple and straightforward explanation of why so many well-meaning financial services professionals steer clients into poor investments. “You see, when you become a broker, you are learning the business from the ground up, and what you are learning is what your brokerage firm teaches you. And what is that? They are teaching you how to sell investments that make the most money for the firm,” even if they “don’t always make the most sense for the investor.” Suze’s “bottom line” is that “you and you alone are responsible for your money and your investments.”
Then again, sometimes the two strands do not mix so felicitously, as in: “The death part of life’s equation cannot ultimately be prevented, but we most certainly can prevent the financial confusion, and at least some of the emotional uncertainty, that so many of us seem to face when death is introduced into our life.”
Ultimately, The Courage to Be Rich is the perfect PBS combo: professionally packaged psychobabble calculated to make yuppies feel even more virtuous about themselves (if such a thing is possible). And for those who might still have some vestigial twangs of guilt about “that whole capitalist thing” that has been enriching them, well, Suze is here to tell you: She’s OK, you’re OK.
Tom Riley is an associate editor of Philanthopy.