These days when I catch Suze Orman on TV, I watch her for a while. Her in-your-face “here’s what I want you to do” approach used to put me off, but I’ve been a financial coach for low-income individuals for a few years and I’ve changed my mind about her.
My role as a coach or mentor is to meet with individuals over weeks or months to help them stay on their budget, be smart about their expenses, and keep plugging away at their financial obstacles. The sessions are conversations, and that is what Suze is good at. I listen for what it is she is probing for and how she puts the pieces together. What do you owe? How much are you saving for retirement? For emergencies? What’s your age? Family? Health? Why are/aren’t you putting money in this, cutting back on that, opening/closing this account? What’s your question for me? And when people aren’t sure whether to make payments on a new giant television or add to their retirement fund, she repeats her mantra: People first, then money, then things.
Suze seems to be the right guru for a time when incomes have been stagnating and personal finance has become bewilderingly complex. Back in the days when people farmed, hunted, built their own homes, and bartered for what they couldn’t do or buy themselves, money was not the only way to procure the necessities of life. Now, for almost all urban and suburban dwellers, it is the only way. Money is the gateway to the goods and services that people need for their very survival.
I liken the hurdles of today’s ordinary household finance to the survival challenges that early humans and even plants and animals face in other forms. That’s a big jump, of course; there are no money-like exchangeable units in nature. But a goal for all living things is to get to the resources for staying alive, whether those are water and sunlight for a plant or the money to pay the water and the light bills for a human family. When either the natural resources or the financial ones become scarce or inaccessible, creatures suffer. If chimps and spiders and daisies could talk when times are bad, their questions would resemble those of the bewildered American consumer: will there be enough for me to get by; how do I provide for the kids; how much should I consume now, how much should I store for later; who might be trying to get what I have?
For humans today, answering those questions requires a complex literacy that involves reading, numeracy, and basic knowledge of transactions of all kinds. Minimally, such literacy calls for understanding and managing the basics of: bank accounts, credit and debit cards, credit reports and scores, pay checks, deductions, Social Security, health, car and home insurance, deductibles, liability, student loans, alimony and child support, inheritances, retirement accounts, rents and mortgages, and last but not least the seductions of marketing.
And if you’re poor, you can add housing vouchers, SNAP food credits, temporary cash assistance, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, disability assistance, Earned Income and other tax credits, and utility bill assistance.
While other creatures are born with their survival mechanisms built in, you might expect that the modern brainy human animal would learn the complexities of financial survival in school. But we don’t. (Twenty states do require one personal finance course in high school or the inclusion of such material within another course, such as math. But such short programs barely scratch the surface beyond budgeting and saving.) In theory—but rarely in fact—we learn it from our parents; maybe that’s why Suze Orman scolds and praises as if she were the mother of her audience.
This educational neglect of the realities of money and family finance is not accidental. Education prepares young people to join the workforce but not the marketplace. Kids spend 12 years reading, writing, calculating, following schedules, and playing well together so they will be prepared for the world of work. But these same kids will also become—and by middle school already are—participants in the marketplace, and a market society does not like shoppers who are too smart. It is not in the interest of profit-makers if a 10th grader can comparison shop in the supermarket candy aisle or a forty-year-old utility worker can keep the family credit score at 800.
Finally, add in the grim reality that soon, globally, the wealthiest one percent will own 50 percent of the world’s wealth. As they have for many species before us, resources may grow more and more scarce for most individuals. We need more hard-nosed navigators like Suze to get us through.