Has Personal Finance Goddess Suze Orman Lost Her Luster?

If she doesn't find a way to offer a mea culpa, some of her devotees may desert her shrine and find another idol.

Photo Credit: merfam via Flickr Commons

Famous for flogging the financially feckless, celebrity personal finance guru Suze Orman may have finally fallen from her pedestal. In fact, with the controversy surrounding the January 2012 debut of her fee-laden prepaid debit card, she set up what is known in her own TV-lingo as a "smackdown" – a come-to-Jesus moment of truth. Only this time, Orman is on the receiving end. Media outlets from the New York Times to Fox Business to the Wall Street Journal have run scolding pieces on the woman whose FICO-4-You Kit and other products are supposed to deliver us financial freedom. Former supporters have dropped her like a hot potato. Flurries of nasty tweets have erupted between Orman and her detractors. How did this happen and what is the reality behind the perma-tanned façade that Americans have come to idolize?

Suze Who?

Peruse Orman’s Wikipedia page and you will find an appealing Horatio Alger story of a Chicago-born girl raised by working-class Jewish immigrant parents; a girl who rose to become one of the most powerful media personalities in America. You will also discover something curiously absent from the background of a person on Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" list for her work as a financial expert; namely, a formal education in finance. Orman, you'll find, got a B.A. in social work and worked as a waitress (until age 30, you can learn elsewhere) before landing an unlikely job as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. Not the usual path to financial expertise, but what of it? There are many places to learn besides a classroom. The trouble is, teasing out the details of Orman’s education is a tricky business.

In her first book, The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, Orman recounts life lessons about money. One is a touching tale of her hard-working father, once burned in a fire trying to remove a safe from his store, who dies peacefully having achieved wild success with a new store and having provided for his family. Readers are to be inspired by his never-give-up tenacity. But years later, Orman admitted that her father committed suicide on Father’s Day, broken by financial worries. When questioned about the discrepancy, Orman brushed it off: “Who knows what I said in the book?”

Back in 1998, Forbes reporter William P. Barrett questioned the credibility of the rising star, who had just made the bestseller list for the first time with 9 Steps. He noted that some of her advice was obvious (use the self-service pump at the gas station!) if not downright silly (search your closets for missing money?), and he disdainfully recounted Orman’s self-promotion in the form of plugs for charitable giving on PBS. Barrett cast doubt on the nature and duration of Orman’s financial planning career and pointed out that her income mostly came from selling insurance, a product which, he noted ominously, tended to receive a great deal of attention in her books.

Sour grapes from the male-dominated finance world? Possibly. But then came Mark Veverka at the San Francisco Chronicle, supporting Barrett’s view that Orman had been misleading and documenting the disturbing obfuscation of her publicist. In the early 2000s, financial journalist Chuck Jaffe expressed frustration with what he considered Orman’s conflicts of interest and described her financial advice as too simplistic and extreme in radio segments and columns like “Why I hate Suze Orman’s advice.” These alarms did little to stop Orman’s meteoric rise to guru-status. Her defenders admired Orman's characteristic tough love stance and found her old-fashioned instructions to get out of debt and live below your means to be just what a spendthrift America needed. The woman was well on her way. And the financial crash, which felled so many, only served to increase Orman’s fortune.

The Goddess of Prosperity

Orman’s frosted blonde hairdo, year-round tan and bedazzled fashions have sometimes been the butt of jokes (see this hilarious SNL clip). But the semiotics of her appearance is revealing, along with her speaking style, which tends to combine a Mother Superior, finger-wagging approach with New Agey-sounding spiritual platitudes. With her shiny golden visage and guru-speak, Orman signals that we are to see her as the goddess of both material and spiritual wealth. We are to be purified of our financial transgressions in the gleam of her golden effulgence.

In the spiritual realm, Orman inclines toward the East. The particular goddess she channels is Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The embodiment of beauty and charm, as well as fortune, Lakshmi wears ornaments of lustrous gold and showers her devotees with cascades of golden coins. In her several hands she holds the promise of material beatitude. Orman's 2007 hit guide Women and Moneypronounces the qualities of the new woman of wealth, which include wisdom and beauty as well as a spiritual devotion to cleanliness. In addition to scrupulously arranging the bills in her wallet each morning so that they face the same direction, Orman’s followers must imitate the women of India who welcome Lakshmi into their homes by sweeping clean their entryways. Goddesses like things tidy, apparently.

It’s easy to see why this quasi-spiritual approach was successful, particularly with women, who were often stuck in a financial limbo with few mentors and little substantive guidance. In a consumer world that talked to us as if our main purpose was to spend money and master the art of fellatio, Orman’s treatment of women as beings who could save, invest and handle debt as well as any man felt liberating. Orman understood that women’s roles shifted drastically over the past several decades, and along with them our relationship to money. We had risen into the professional and management ranks, yet still felt overwhelmingly insecure about our finances. Living longer, paid less than male peers, and penalized in the social safety net system, we had very real worries about ending our lives in poverty. I remember how my mother, a college professor who out-earned her husband, was denied a credit card by a local department store unless she had secured my dad’s permission. Navigating new financial waters could be frustrating and confusing. We often had issues with claiming our worth and demanding to be paid accordingly. Orman got all this, and Suze the Savior was ready to lead us to the Promised Land of Financial Freedom.

Women have a dysfunctional relationship with money, she told us, but Orman would be our relationship coach, showing us that the connection between net-worth and self-worth was an “absolute truth.” The implication of this was that women in low-paying jobs, like teachers, for example, weren’t worth much. Orman herself, commanding millions of dollars – and people -- was to be the new ideal of spiritual and material success.

Fallen Idol?

Goddesses must be worshiped, and they like making decrees. From her television platform, Orman has delivered oracular judgments and brow-beatings to her devotees, making instantaneous decisions based on few facts. There are unstated rules of her ritual, and woe to the hapless follower who does not abide them. For example, to name factors beyond ourselves in order to understand our situation is heresy.

In the new introduction to Women and Money, written in 2009 after the financial crash, Orman admonishes us to forget about “blaming Wall Street and Washington” and get down to the business of personal responsibility. If you have big credit card balances, you’ve been living beyond your means. If you didn’t bother to create an emergency fund, you are lazy. But never fear! Just muster your “can-do spirit” and all will be well. If Orman admitted the truth, that many Americans have found themselves in debt, jobless and underwater with mortgages through no fault of their own -- and often through the deliberate fraud of financial criminals -- she would have to toss aside the golden whip. And that would be no fun at all. Orman is lately fond of saying she's on the side of the 99 percent, but her rhetoric sometimes sounds like it was dispensed by Wall Street lobbyists.

Orman purrs when people profess their devotion to her, and bristles when they dare to question. And yet lately, the questions will not seem to stop. The predatory side of her prepaid debit card (which charges fees for simply using customer service) has earned her a dizzying wave of criticism in headlines like “Suze Orman’s prepaid card: Can you afford it?” Orman's other products are receiving scrutiny as well: her $50 FICO Kit has been pronounced a scam, and Felix Salmon of Reuters, among others, has called out the bad advice in her investment newsletter. Twitter exchanges have revealed an increasingly testy Orman and a growing group of disgruntled fans and pissed-off financial bloggers and reporters.

There is a Hindu saying, He is a real teacher who not only instructs others, but practices the same instructions himself.

In TV land, a smackdown can only end when the subject cracks and reveals that she has sinned and seeks repentance (check out this Orman/Octomom showdownfor a classic example). If Orman doesn't find a way to offer a mea culpa, at least some of her devotees will desert her shrine and find another idol. Orman can certainly retreat along a path strewn with golden coins, but if you're used to being a goddess, that's probably pretty lonely. 

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Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.