Updated: 9/17/2010 9:00 AM ET|
I don't hate Suze; I just disagree
There are some things I do like about celebrity financial adviser Suze Orman. But do her one-size-fits-all answers really fit you?
There doesn't seem to be much middle ground with Suze Orman. Her fans adore her. She drives other people right up the wall.
I knew that before I wrote a column disagreeing with her about-face on credit card debt. (She said that if you don't already have a "fully funded" emergency account, you should pay only the minimums on any credit card debt until you do. I think that's good advice for some, but bad for others.)
What surprised me, though, was how many people -- Suze lovers and haters alike -- interpreted my criticism of her advice as criticism of her.
Haters bashed her books, her popularity -- even her clothes, for heaven's sake -- assuming I agreed. Defenders ripped into me for being envious of her fame. (Fame? Not so much. Massive net worth? Oh, yeah.)
Just for the record: I don't hate Suze. I don't always agree with her, either. Apparently, I'm one of the few people in America who occupies that lonely middle ground.
First, let me tell you what I like about Suze:
She got her CFP. If you're going to take financial advice from anybody, whether she's a celebrity or not, it should be from someone who at a minimum has training in comprehensive financial planning. People who get the Certified Financial Planner mark understand that there are many moving parts to a person's finances and they learn about the importance of addressing all of them: debt, cash flow, investing, insurance, retirement, taxes, college savings, estate planning. People who lack this training often don't know what they don't know. They can give lopsided advice that favors their area of expertise but ignores the many other factors that affect your situation.
She's not pushing get-rich-quick schemes. Although I'll quibble on the details, overall Suze's advice is sound, basic financial planning that will create wealth over time. She's not touting stocks, commodity schemes or any other shortcuts to wealth. She isn't trying to foist products for the wealthy (cash-value life insurance or annuities, for example) onto the middle class.
She's got the touch. Suze connects with people in a way no other personal finance author ever has, or perhaps will again. Her books are mega-best sellers and her PBS specials have raised millions for public television because many, many people like what she has to say and the way she says it.
And that, I say, is a good thing. I've heard from so many people who love Suze because they were clueless about money and she made it understandable to them. Anyone who gets people started on the right path -- to examine their spending, pay down their debt, start saving for retirement and get adequate insurance -- is OK in my book.
Why Suze doesn't need to follow her own advice
I'm also not at all bothered by the fact that most of her wealth is in low-risk municipal bonds.
Suze detractors are livid that she lectures her readers on the importance of investing in stocks when she has the bulk of her money elsewhere.
Yeah, well, I guess she also could drive a Taurus, clip coupons and fly coach. Here's the thing: She doesn't have to.
True financial planning is about taking the appropriate amount of risk. Those of us still saving for retirement need the inflation-beating returns stocks offer over the long run, and so we have to put up with the volatility stocks give us in the short run.
But if you've already made $30 million, why volunteer for that kind of risk? You don't need big returns unless you're trying to build some kind of dynasty for future heirs, which she's not.
At those lofty levels of wealth, Suze's primary concerns are likely to be preservation of her capital and reducing her tax bill. Given that, the municipal bonds in which she's invested are a perfectly appropriate choice.
Great advice -- for the right people
One criticism that does have merit is that Suze isn't big on nuance. Of course, neither is her audience. They want to be told what to do, not listen to a long treatise about the potential advantages and drawbacks of various financial moves.
The problem with one-size-fits-all answers, though, is that they often don't.
Let's return to Suze's advice about paying only the minimums. Yes, credit card companies are aggressively slashing limits, meaning that the credit you counted on tiding you through an emergency might not be there.
But not everyone is equally vulnerable. Someone with a steady job, high FICO scores and a ton of home equity needn't worry as much about a credit card company cutting his limit as someone facing a layoff with maxed-out cards and lousy credit scores.
The fact that neither has an emergency fund is less important than their overall financial flexibility -- the other resources they can tap into a crisis. The guy about to lose his job has fewer such resources and should make cash savings a priority. The other guy can rely on his home equity or just go get another credit card.
That's the peril of offering personal finance advice to the masses, as Suze does and as I do. When it comes to personal finance, there is typically no single right answer. We can help you get started, but we're no substitute for an experienced, objective financial planner who can look at your particular situation and offer individualized advice.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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