On a remote Bahamian island, there is a woman that some locals know only as “The Fishing Lady.” For the last five years, she has spent most days of the week casting lines alongside the island’s men, a hyper-competitive group of veteran fishers. The Fishing Lady catches wahoo and grouper, and her haul occasionally includes the rare 60-pounder. She’s relentless, this Fishing Lady, as is her partner. Sometimes the pair are out on the water for 10 hours a day, and if they’re not there, you can probably find them in British Columbia. After all, that’s a great spot for salmon fishing.
Unbeknownst to the Bahamian locals, The Fishing Lady is perhaps the United States’ most popular and well-known financial advisor. Before she was a semi-retired angler, Orman wrote 10 New York Times best-sellers about personal finance, won two Emmy awards for her long-running show on CNBC, and was spoofed by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live.
“Greatest honor in my life,” she told an interviewer who asked about Wiig’s mockery. “There can be no higher honor than someone mocking you on Saturday Night Live. Once you’re at that point, you have made it into the culture of America.”
Having made it, Orman after a while wanted to try something new. She still loved fielding financial questions, and most of all, she still loved helping people. She just wanted something different.
“When I hit 65, I wanted to find out who I was without the attention,” she says. So after The Suze Orman Show ended in 2015, Orman and Kathy “KT” Travis, her spouse of 10 years, moved to tropical paradise where, in the financial guru’s own words, “there is absolutely nothing to do.” There’s a tiny market, there’s a small restaurant with 10 tables, and there’s fish. She was still writing and hosting a popular podcast, but, for the most part, Orman was just “The Fishing Lady,” and The Fishing Lady was at peace.
Then, well, 2020 happened.
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Orman’s early life was defined by a series of setbacks. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and it was there that her father’s chicken shack restaurant burned down—twice. Worse yet, he didn’t have insurance. She didn’t know it at the time, but both fires were cruel lessons, unveiling for Orman just how bad things can get when you don’t prepare. She moved to the West Coast after graduating from the University of Illinois, and in Berkeley, California, she suffered another catastrophe. This one changed her life.
Starting at 23, Orman waitressed at a place called the Buttercup Factory. Her best months, she pulled in close to $400. Intent on starting her own restaurant, Orman borrowed $50,000. Then she took a trip to Merrill Lynch.
“I did exactly what they told me to do—put it in a money market account,” she told New York magazine in 2010. “Except my broker, Randy, said to me, ‘Suze, how would you like to make a quick $100 a week?’ And I said, ‘That’s more than I make as a waitress. How do you do that?’ ”
Randy started using Orman’s dough to trade speculative options, and soon enough, all of the money was gone.
In a myriad of interviews since, Orman has pointed to that moment as a turning point, the fork in the road that ultimately led her down a path to those Emmys, the SNL mockery and her friendship with Oprah. Yet while it’s true that Randy’s buffoonery was a catalyst for her career, Orman learned a far more important lesson.
“I realized that I could be helping people,” she says. “In a way, I could be the anti-Randy.”
Orman enrolled in Merrill Lynch’s financial training program, and chose to specialize in retirement planning. “I had a kinship with clients who walked into my office full of fear and anxiety as they neared retirement,” she writes in her latest book. By 1983, seven years since she bolted for Berkeley, Orman was a VP at Prudential. Four years after that, she founded her own financial advisory firm: the Suze Orman Financial Group. She loved creating those lightbulb moments and those sighs of relief for people. She loved showing them how much they can save if they did X and Y, and she always reminded them to remember Z, too. She loved it so much that she started writing books, in the hope that the masses could benefit from her money musings.
Publisher Esther Margolis took a chance on the amateur author because Orman reminded her of Jacqueline Susann, an uber-popular writer with a special talent for connecting with women. Orman’s first book, 1994’s You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It, sold well, and over the course of the next two decades, Orman advised her way across America: There were book tours, endless tapings of her eponymous show, and the call-ins and guest spots, where Orman dazzled with her no-nonsense, “let’s get real” approach to finance.
It always looked like she was there to whip you into shape, not sell you something, and that was, in fact, her duty. She helped famed comedian Kathy Griffin straighten out her finances, and did the same for pop star Sia. But her favorite conversations aren’t with comedians; they’re with mothers. When Orman produced a series of videos for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, she met Ayanna Benjamin, a 36-year-old domestic violence survivor with two daughters. The two became friends, and Orman and Travis attended Benjamin’s hard-fought graduation from The City College of New York. The friends frequently talk over text and phone calls, and Orman is always ready with money advice. But sometimes the guru just can’t handle Benjamin’s financial folly, or her penchant for spending money at Dunkin’ Donuts.
“When I’m bad, she’ll hang up the phone, and I know,” Benjamin told The New York Times. “She’s not with that.”
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Orman saw this coming. She didn’t know what exactly “this” would be, but she knew 2020 would bring about a cataclysmic financial event.
“The market had already gone up really high,” she explains. “I was looking at artificial intelligence. I was looking at an election year. I knew flooding and fires and hurricanes would be rampant. Something just wasn’t feeling right.”
Her podcast, Suze Orman’s Women & Money, offered caution.
“In 2019, I warned everyone about February 2020,” she says. “Four. Different. Times.”
That’s partly why she wrote her latest book, The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+: Winning Strategies to Make Your Money Last a Lifetime. The book hit shelves in (you guessed it) February 2020. So when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Orman was ready. She was prepared for the media requests. She was prepared for the inevitable panic, which she says is completely warranted. Most of all, she was prepared to scold anyone who wasn’t taking their finances seriously.
“This is a financial wake-up call,” she says. “You need a new road map, a new way to look at your money. This is about what you need versus what you can afford.”
Her most important piece of advice is pretty direct: Hunker down.
“You should be downsizing, keeping your car longer, and learning to live a pretty austere lifestyle,” she says.
But her book contains nine chapters of far more detailed and intricate nuggets of wisdom. Over the course of nine chapters, Orman dissects everything from Treasury bonds to interest rates to maximizing life in your 60s. In each chapter, Orman seamlessly blends deft financial guidance with the personable approach that has been her staple for decades.
“Listen: My mom lived until she was 97, and her two sisters lived into their mid-90s,” she writes in a chapter about planning for the long term. “Given that both their parents had died in their 60s, the three sisters were convinced they would never make it to 80. Didn’t quite happen the way they thought it would.”
Therein lies one of the biggest themes of her latest book, and of almost every conversation Orman has had since the coronavirus reached the U.S.: For the sake of your loved ones, you have to plan ahead.
“Most financial people talk about which stocks to buy and how the economy is doing,” she says. “But personal finance is about so much more than that. Personal finance is about family. How do you tell your children you can’t support them anymore? What documents do you need to have in order if a loved one is sick? That’s what I’m focusing my time on now.”
The pandemic and the subsequent recession has lit a fire under Orman, not unlike a certain Merrill Lynch staffer named Randy. Even when she needed surgery for a spinal tumor in summer 2020, she rebounded quickly, jumping back into the podcast booth with advice, as she puts it, “for mothers, grandmothers, wives and the men smart enough to listen.”
“I realized when I stepped away that I won’t retire from helping people,” she says. “I can’t. It’s in my DNA, and nothing can replace that. Not even fishing.”
That sentiment gives me all of the motivation I need to ask Orman for some financial advice before our conversation comes to an end.
Even though I have a layman’s understanding of finance, I still think I’ve been doing pretty well saving and investing. As it turns out, I have not. Orman set me straight and took me to school, quizzing me on my 401K, my Roth IRA and at least three other acronyms I was now hearing for the first time.
“Why are you doing that?” she asks, perplexed by my ineptitude. “No, no, no, here’s what you do.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo courtesy of Suze Orman