Saturday night’s final episode, after 13 years, of CNBC’s “The Suze Orman Show” might be viewed as one more positive indicator of an economic recovery. If Suze is moving on, could this somehow mean that Americans finally got their acts together and are back on the job, above water on their mortgages and storing adequate nuts away for the bitter financial winters that will surely come?
If you watch her financial advice show — as I have for more Saturday nights than I should admit — then you know this is certainly not the case.
In recent episodes, callers and on-camera guests have had the nerve to tell Suze (it feels almost wrong to refer to her by her last name, especially since she refers to most everyone as “girlfriend” and “boyfriend”) that they’re considering borrowing from their 401(k) balances to pay off other debts. They’re still mentioning car leases — one of Suze’s biggest no-no’s. They’ve co-signed student loans and car loans for children and grandchildren, which breaks her heart. Worst of all, they’re thinking about investing in whole-life insurance policies. That always sets her off.
“Really, people, are you kidding me?” she will vent at some point in almost every episode. “How long have you been watching ‘The Suze Orman Show’? ”
Forever, it seems. At least since I turned 40 and started seeing mortality (and its more pleasant-sounding prelude, retirement) as more than just abstract concepts.
“I’m worried about them,” Suze said earlier this week in a phone interview, and by “them” she means, well, all of us. “At the end of this [final] show, I make a statement that I wasn’t expecting to, that I am genuinely worried about everyone — what will they do now? Who will listen to them when they have no money, when they are desperate to find ways to get [out of debt]? There’s nobody out there who cares about them.”
Nobody on TV, at least. What we do have are plenty of shows that promote the dream of striking it rich. CNBC’s schedule is now heavily geared toward entrepreneurial spirit (“Shark Tank,” “Restaurant Startup”), the perils of the small-business owner (“The Profit”) and the extravagances of the super rich (“The Filthy Rich Guide”).
For a brief moment that coincided with corporate bailouts and stimulus plans, TV seemed eager to connect to Americans’ personal anxieties about the economy, with shows about extreme coupon clippers and gold hunters and a number of documentaries about the working poor. Even Elmo starred in a “Sesame Street” special where his mother got laid off from her job. One of my favorite reality shows, WE tv’s “Downsized,” followed the travails of a suburban Phoenix family who were on the verge of losing their house until they put themselves on a tighter budget. (I wonder whatever happened to them.)
The Great Recession faded, either on paper or in memory, and now, if you keep channel-surfing, it’s clear that certain fantasies are back firmly in place: On HGTV, people shop for vacation homes in the high six figures. On Bravo and Lifetime and WE tv, self-proclaimed divas and other quasi-celebrities surround themselves in the latest iterations of bling. “People first,” goes Suze’s motto. “Then money. Then things.”
Those words were like a balm in tough times; now it feels like things are first again.
Not everyone who came on “The Suze Orman Show” was desperate. In her popular “Can I Afford It?” segments, in which callers asked for her permission to make a big purchase (APPROVED! Or, perhaps more often, DENIIIIIIIED!), they often demonstrated that they had amassed small fortunes in retirement accounts and saved the cash equivalent of eight months or more of living expenses in case they lost their jobs. The stories you saw on “The Suze Orman Show” occasionally felt like unreported good news during the recession — a lot of people were doing fine, and still are.
Such information also had the effect of making other viewers jealous of one another (how did someone making less money than I do put so much into retirement in just half the time that I’ve been saving?), but that was the point of all this sharing: Once a number is out there, it’s also not as scary.
Americans blab about everything except their own money. What I loved most about “The Suze Orman Show” is that guests had to provide all their financial data in order to get her advice, no matter how humiliating the numbers might be. The payoff for viewers was both educational and vicarious. It was also the only place in our money-crazed culture where you could hear consumers being told, “no.” What could be more fun than witnessing what became known as a Suze Smackdown?
Graduate students with enormous student loans would call in boasting of how “hard” they’d worked their whole lives (they’re 27), asking to reward themselves with $3,600 yoga retreats or $1,400 Louis Vuitton bags. (DENIIIIIIIED!) Whiny brides-to-be with Buckingham Palace delusions called in asking for permission to put entire weddings on zero-percent introductory interest credit cards. (DENIIIIIIIED!) Middle-aged men would call with hopes of buying sports cars or motorcycles, and Suze would get this gleefully wicked look on her face once it was revealed that they lacked any liquid savings. (DENIIIIIIIED!)
Is she a little kooky? She is. Does she sometimes get on people’s nerves? No doubt. Those wild eyes, the dazzling teeth, the year-round tan. And, of course, the parade of wide-collared jackets and shimmery sweaters, which were perfect fodder for Kristen Wiig’s spot-on Suze impression on “Saturday Night Live.”
Women seemed to benefit from “The Suze Orman Show” more than men; they were certainly on the show as guests more frequently, and over the years Suze’s show became a reliable place (perhaps the only place) to see everyday women describe their career successes and financial worries in plainest terms. Men often seemed to be afraid of her — and don’t think that Suze never noticed this. She wanted them on the show more than they were.
“Here’s what I think about men,” she told me. “I think they are financial fakers. They refuse to also admit that they’re afraid when it comes to money and that they need help. . . . I think they were maybe afraid that I would come down too hard on them, but many times, when we had a husband and wife on the show, I wound up agreeing with him.”
She can also remember several occasions where a woman scheduled to be on the show would back out at the last minute, “saying, ‘My husband won’t let me go on.’ Lady, do you understand how right then and there we’ve got a problem? It was always such a heartbreak, and not just because we lost a guest.”
Suze feels certain her best advice got through to people — men and women, adults and kids, maybe millions of them. Although she’s been out of the closet for most of her professional life, and always made certain her book publisher and CNBC knew she was a lesbian before she signed their contract offers, it wasn’t until 2007 that it ever came up on the show and in other media. She was able to use her own life — including her marriage to Kathy “K.T.” Travis — to illustrate the financial and legal burdens that gay couples run into without equal rights. To some of her viewers, who understood “people first, then money” (forget about things), the financial angle might likely have been more persuasive than all other arguments for same-sex marriage.
At 63, Suze is forever here and there and everywhere, giving speeches and signing copies of her 10 bestselling books, often sticking around until the last person has had a chance to talk to her. At a recent appearance in Naples, Fla., she said, a woman in the audience asked about investing in a whole-life policy and the entire audience gasped in disapproval before Suze even had to say a word. She counts that as a victory.
As reported when CNBC announced the show’s end, Suze is busy working on a daytime talk show that she hopes will premiere in the fall of 2016. Currently called “Suze Orman’s Money Wars,” it will focus on the causes of arguments that couples and families have about finances. They’ll lay it all out there for her, and she will lay the truth on them.
In the meantime, Suze and her advice will be missed; we’ll probably be back in the red, upside-down and in arrears again by the time she returns. The plan is for her new show to be syndicated on local stations but also widely available on mobile devices. She said that’s better for consumers.
“I can’t be a hypocrite,” she said. “Do you know how many people I told over the years to drop cable?”
(one hour) final episode airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on CNBC.