Talking to Suze Orman is a surreal experience. Get her fired up about something — the fiscal cliff or marriage equality, for example — and suddenly she’s speaking in the short, emphatic bursts that have become her trademark, thanks in part to Kristen Wiig’s spot-on “Saturday Night Live” impersonation.
“It was my favorite. Thing. Ever,” says Orman, who notes she was in the audience the second time Wiig performed the act. “I’ve won Emmy awards, I’ve won other awards, but the greatest honor that has been bestowed upon me is [‘Saturday Night Live’].”
But while her staccato speech and affinity for shoulder pads have become comedy fodder, Orman’s success is no joke. She’s a world-renowned financial expert who believes in tough love and accountability as firmly as she believes in the power of a Roth IRA. She has penned nine books, writes a column for O magazine and has had her own highly rated CNBC television show for more than a decade. She’s become a pop culture mainstay, having appeared on shows such as “30 Rock,” and her catch phrases such as, “Is this a need or a want?” have become part of our country’s financial lexicon. When her show is in session, the 61-year-old Orman works 18-hour days to fulfill all of her commitments, and as a result of her unstoppable work ethic, smart investments and save-first mentality, Orman is a multimillionaire.
Now, 17 years after the release of her first book, Orman’s expanding her focus beyond the financial. She’s been an outspoken supporter of marriage equality (Orman has been with her partner, KT Travis, for 12 years) and in January, she’ll put her money where her mouth is — literally — by launching the Approved to be Me Card. It’s a new version of her Approved prepaid debit card, with 100 percent of the net profits benefiting marriage equality. “It’s time for marriage equality to become a reality,” she says. “And it’s going to take a lot of money. There will be legal battles, and if there was ever a time that marriage equality needed money [for a fight], it’s now. So here’s a way for people — gay, straight, supporters — to use the Approved Card to buy anything they would normally buy on a credit or debit card, and 100 percent of net profits will go to support marriage equality.”
Though Orman currently lives with Travis in an oceanside condo in Florida, her story began here in Chicago. Her parents ran a deli in Hyde Park and Orman grew up on the South Side, attending Horace Mann School and South Shore High School. Growing up during the 1950s and ’60s, Orman had an up-close view of the changing neighborhood. “I believe that growing up on the South Side, watching the neighborhoods change — because my parents didn’t have money to leave — is the best thing to ever happen to me. It gave me a compassion and a love and an understanding of life: that the color of our skin does not define who we are, that excellence doesn’t come because you were born into private schools and private colleges, that success comes because you know who you are. And I couldn’t have learned that anywhere except the South Side of Chicago.”
Orman left home to attend the University of Illinois, then moved west to California. After waiting tables for several years, she moved into the world of finance, serving as an account executive at Merrill Lynch, then vice president of Prudential Bache Securities before starting her own financial group. She released her first book, You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It, in 1995, and soon followed with The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom. But it was her first appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1998 that catapulted her into the spotlight. Offering everything from investment tips to get-out-of-debt strategies, Orman instantly endeared herself to fans — and the Queen of Talk — by making money conversations easier to digest and encouraging realistic goal setting to get finances on track.
“Diets are ridiculous, budgets are ridiculous,” says Orman. “You’re dieting and watching everything and one day something happens and you explode and eat 10,000 calories in one sitting. The same is true with budgets. You cut back, you don’t spend and one day you walk into a store and walk out with seven pairs of shoes.” Instead, she recommends cutting back slowly, then getting excited about the results. “If you go out to eat every day, start by going out to eat three times a week and just watch what happens. Then it becomes very easy. It’s becomes a lifestyle. You automatically go for the right choices.”
While her approach to personal finance is tough, it’s nothing compared with the sharp words she has for politicians. When asked about the fiscal cliff, there’s no love in Orman’s tone. “All of you should be ashamed of yourselves. The goal of government is to make people feel secure, and the fact that you let it get, yet again, to this last-minute deadline makes me wonder, ‘Are you out of your minds?’ ” Orman says. “To instill fear into the good people of America, when they have enough fear?”
So what can people do to prepare in case we go over the fiscal cliff? Orman advises using the situation as a wake-up call to spend less, save more and work more. “Nobody is going to save you but yourself. So get yourself out of debt. Put every penny you can into a Roth IRA. Look at this not as, ‘Are they going to go over or not?’ But as, ‘They don’t have the ability to solve the problem, so you’re going to have to solve it for yourself.’ It’s that simple.”
As the year draws to a close, Orman is gearing up for the launch of the Approved to be Me Card, and in early 2013 she’ll add professor to her resume, launching the very first online accredited personal finance course for the University of Phoenix. “You interact with this course,” says Orman, who created everything from the curriculum to the exams to the accompanying videos. “You’re going to leave with a will, a revocable living trust and making sure you have the right kind of insurance. When you’re done with it, oh, you will have your act together.”
But for now, all of the appearances, advice and curriculum creation are taking a back seat to a more important job: nursing Travis back to health. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Travis had hamstring surgery, and she’s currently immobilized in a brace. “I’m being nurse fuzzy-wuzzy,” says Orman. “We don’t have a nurse come in — I’m cooking, cleaning and doing everything for her. And I have to say, I don’t think I’ve gotten as much joy out of doing anything as I’ve gotten out of this. I can see that nothing I’ve ever gotten her, nothing we’ve ever done together, nothing I’ve ever said to her has meant as much as her seeing me take care of her.” She pauses and thinks for a moment. “If I had to choose between my wealth and KT, it would take me two seconds to say, ‘Take every penny I have.’ KT is my true pot of gold.”
Suze’s three cents:
The amount Orman saves a month on utilities and assessments because she chose the smaller of two condos in her building. “[If you’re young] you put that $400 in a Roth IRA every month for 40 years and that will be $3-4 million dollars by the time you’re 65.”
The new age of retirement, says Orman. “You have to look at working longer, taking social security later rather than earlier, saving more and spending less. You have nobody to count on but yourself when it comes to retirement.”
Before you spend [a penny], “ask yourself, is this a need or a want? If it’s a want, walk away. If it’s a need, buy it. Now you’ve trained your mind to start making the right choices.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE
WHEN “THE SUZE ORMAN SHOW” IS IN SESSION:
5:15 a.m.: Up for breakfast
7:30 a.m.: Heads to the studio
1:30 p.m.: Finishes filming
2 p.m.: It’s off to the gym. Orman logs time with weights and stretching, then follows up with 45 minutes on the elliptical machine.
4 p.m.: “I write, make calls and do business until 10 or 11 p.m.”
WHEN “THE SUZE ORMAN SHOW” IS OFF:
5:15 a.m.: Up for breakfast
7 a.m.: Hits the gym for weights and the elliptical machine
9 a.m.: Orman sits in the sun on her terrace and reads the news.
11 a.m.: She heads down to the marina where she works on her boat, named “Approved,” and enjoys lunch on the water.
4 p.m.: She spends the rest of the evening with Travis, grabbing some much-needed quality time.
—Molly Each | Photo by Sean Lee Davis