Sermon on the mint

Financial planner Suze Orman's best-selling gospel aims to heal your wounded inner Daddy Warbucks


James Poniewozik
April 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

She gets little notice in the financial press and she's not a darling of the cable money shows, but to America at large the voice of money is neither Galbraith nor Greenspan but a financial planner named Suze Orman. Her "The Courage to Be Rich" has topped the New York Times bestseller list for a month, followed by her "The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom." She's a regular on Oprah and QVC, PBS stations
hawk her tapes at pledge time, fans flood her Web site. Why? You'd think even our 401(k)-obsessed culture would be
surfeited with financial planners, wise barbers and stock-picking old ladies; and Orman's basic advice -- pay off your debts, cut out unnecessary expenses, write a will, invest for yourself -- is hardly revolutionary. But her distinguishing feature, or her
racket, is that she combines this run-of-the-mill patter with
of-the-moment spiritual guidance.

Suze (pronounced "Suzie") Orman, you see, wants to heal your
scared, wounded inner Daddy Warbucks. Her message: "Money is attracted to people who are strong and powerful, respectful of it, and deserving of it." Our collective money trauma, our "shame, fear and anger," is what keeps us from reaching our goals. The subtitle of her new bestseller: "Creating a Life of
Material and Spiritual Abundance." It's a good angle if nothing else. People have heard, "You gotta spend money to make money." They haven't heard, "Our responsibility in life is always to keep money flowing, for in the flow is purity and,
ultimately, richness." The uplifting message is that by conquering your fears and living a full spiritual life, you can master your money; likewise, if you're doing well, you must have done something to deserve it. Which appeals to the spirit of the '90s, whose spiritually-questing wealthy can make one positively nostalgic for the '80s "short-fingered
vulgarians"; if there's anything more disgusting than someone who wants to have everything, it's someone who wants to deserve everything. And yet Orman is not writing for billionaires; not even exclusively for guilty bourgeois PBS viewers. Orman is not the sharpest of writers, nor the
best-credentialed -- a cutting Forbes piece shows she misrepresented her professional record as well as her story of a legal run-in with a former assistant that she trots out constantly (as I discussed in a 1997 column).

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But she has touched a nerve in a market thick with
beat-the-street primers that would bloodlessly detach money from messy life. Continuing a tradition of moral financial advice that runs back to Poor Richard and beyond, her mix of New Age liberalism (wealth flows from charity), victimology (hardships stem from childhood psychic wounds) and conservative empowerment-speak (anyone can better themselves with
"courage" and "gumption") speaks strongly to a readership weaned on Oprah and CNBC.

Orman's cafeteria spirituality, expressed in "Courage," is
part power of positive thinking ("Still the thoughts that say you can't because you can"), part religious pastiche (she refers to Hindu tradition, a monotheistic God and undefined "scriptures"). It sometimes sounds pleasantly daft ("introduce the vocabulary of richness into your relationships"); other times, it verges on bizarre pseudoscience. She asks, "Have you ever run into an acquaintance or friend ... and
thought to yourself, My God, how old this person looks ... (This) may be determined in part by genetics, but you're also seeing the external effects of his impure thoughts, his impure words and especially his impure actions."

Somebody needs to show Suze Orman a Dorothea Lange photograph. Leaving aside disease, what she's describing here is often the outward manifestation of, among other things, poverty --
the best instant-aging aid known to man. Conversely, access
to a health club, plastic surgeons and pricey emollients can go a long way toward covering the tracks of impurity.

All of which might be a minor quibble, except it grossly demonstrates the corollary of Orman's theme: that your spiritual status is reflected in your bottom line, is even, literally, written on your face. It's a crunchier, panspiritualist Calvinism, holding wealth as a manifestation of God's grace (along with an emphasis on the virtue of thrift -- right
down to forgoing movies and extra-virgin olive oil). One feels like a monster for disputing some of Orman's points, such as that one can't be "truly rich" without treating others decently and generously. But the pernicious flip side is: you get what you deserve. If in fact you can't become wealthy if you're tight-fisted with charity -- though the boyish-faced Bill Gates has only recently started to really open his wallet-- it's not difficult to infer that if you're loaded, well, then, you must
be good enough. If you're blessed, one syllable, you're bless['e]d, two. Orman's beatific posture sanctifies her writing even when she belly-aches about the rule against contributions to tax-beating Roth IRAs by upper-income Americans -- such as, oh, best-selling, spiritually-minded authors. ("On some very strange level the IRS does not want people who have a lot of money to be able to utilize the accounts," she sing-songs. Ah, if only there were a name for that strange reason, like, I don't know ... "progressive taxation"?)

Thus various Ormanisms that sound encouraging enough addressed to the struggling, but try picturing them coming from, say, Steve Forbes. "What's keeping you from being rich? In most cases it is simply a lack of belief."

And: "Why is it that some people have money while others do not? It's almost mystical, really." Well, no it's not, really. Many are born poor and are much more likely to stay that way -- even those, amazingly, with the good luck to be born into abject poverty in countries like India, whose rich spiritual traditions Orman so admires. Many can and do work their own
way up to wealth, as Orman, to her credit, did herself (she's the daughter of a struggling take-out chicken seller and waitressed for years before getting a job with Merrill Lynch). But to imply that their bad fortune is the result of defective souls isn't empowering, it's an insult.

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It's good cover for the counsel-giver, though. Did I get bad advice on diversifying my investment portfolio? Or have I simply failed to confront my fear and shame? Orman's slippery, new-speak use of "rich" is likewise useful: now it means "wealthy," now it means "good" -- "richness beyond money, richness of the soul." Verily, the wise woman's meanings are
manifold! But it's particularly wise for the author who wants to cover her ass. If you don't get rich following her advice, well, then, she's really talking about feeling rich. "The Courage to Be Rich" never really says you'll get wealthy by being a good person, and it never exactly doesn't say it.

Still, it's hard to write off Orman completely, if only because she has so clearly identified a need in her readers. The bulletin-board messages at her Web site are often touching: "I MESSAGE YOU ABOUT CREDIT CARD BUT IT REALLY WAS SHAME ... I THOUGH I HAD TO HAVE CARD TO MAKE ME BETTER THE MORE I HAD THE BETTER I WAS BOY WAS I WRONG." And it's certainly good to hear a get-rich author advocating tithing, however defined. (The AP reports she
searches her hotel rooms for loose change left by people who "don't respect money," then leaves it -- a buck or less -- for the maid.)

And if Suze Orman is a flawed idol, the golden-bull worshippers of today's personal-finance media have helped create her. Turning on any of various cable money shows, her readers hear, on the one hand, by-the-numbers advice that doesn't acknowledge the personal nature of money decisions; and on the other, tales of IPO offerings they can't get in on, overnight tech-stock wealth they'll probably never attain. Orman's Web audience doesn't seem out to get rich so much as to understand IRAs, student loans and trusts.

Perhaps they know better than to buy into her books' grandiose titles; maybe they simply want a way to be comfortable and happy with what they have. As a great
American parable
reminded us, well-meaning people will travel great distances to any specious wizard who promises us courage and a heart; who hands us a piece of paper and tells us we now have a brain.

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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