It is human nature to search for Truths that describe the world we live in. This is one reason why personal finance gurus are so popular amongst a group of individuals that listens. Many of the more popular authors, seminar leaders, and cult favorites stick by their mantras, Grand Unifying Theories, such as “credit cards are evil,” “invest in stock index funds for the long term,” and “always buy a used car.”
Any individual who has been able to build a following, cult or otherwise, within the subject of personal finance would do well not to let others peek inside the leader’s own. The advice doles out to the public is usually for a specific intended audience, and it is rare for a guru to fit within the audience he or she is addressing.
In her book, Women and Money, Suze Orman explains that everyone should be invested 100% in stock index funds until close to retirement. This is solid, definitive advice for Suze’s audience, and in this case, men as well. There are some instances where this statement may cause trouble, such as the recent stock market collapse. The book was published in February 2007, as the stock market was reaching a recent peak.
Yet, the average person entering retirement will still have several decades to live, several decades in which the nest egg must last even when being drawn upon. The best way to do this is with a stock index fund. But if we look at Suze Orman’s own portfolio, she doesn’t follow her own advice. As of last year, Orman had $1 million invested in the stock market, a lot of money but only 4% of her own portfolio. The rest was mostly invested in municipal bonds which are very safe but earn less over time. In an interview, she stated she only invests in the stock market what she can afford to lose.
The rules, defined and proliferated by Suze Orman do not apply to her. And they shouldn’t. Why would someone with assets of $25 million follow the same advice as Suze’s audience, in which members might have a net worth anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars below zero, in debt, to several hundred thousand dollars above zero?
The mathematics don’t magically change when you are rich, but the only chance for average individuals to survive through retirement is to take relatively risky bets on the stock market. While the stock market has failed to disappoint in the long term if you look at the numbers, real performance doesn’t always match the statistics thanks to timing. Wealthy individuals, like Suze, can afford to accept less risk. A bond return of 4% on $24 million invested results in an income of $960,000 a year — and that doesn’t include speaking engagements, royalties and television deals. Suze, who is quite comfortable at this stage in her life and career, should not be required to live by the same philosophies she preaches for her callers.
Should you stop following her advice? Suze Orman has helped many people come to terms with their financial condition. But unless you’ve spoken to her about your specific situation, take her mass-market advice with a grain of salt. Yes, her nuggets of wisdom are in many cases helpful, but not everyone falls neatly into the same category.
Updated May 5, 2014 and originally published May 25, 2009.