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Fair Isaacs’ credit model, known as a FICO score, is the most widely used in the United States and the arrangement between them and Orman has been a source of controversy in the financial press, since Orman promotes the importance of a good FICO score in her books at the same time she is earning money from the very company that sends that score to potential lenders.
Another source of controversy is Orman’s relationship with TD Ameritrade, with whom she has a business partnership. To convince viewers of her show to begin saving, Orman has suggested going to Saveyourself.com (a Web site she set up) and opening an account with that firm. If you deposit $50 a month in each of the first 12 months, the bank will match you — up to $100. “It’s a savings rate of 15 percent,” Orman has said repeatedly. The trouble is, after the first $600, the interest rate drops to an ordinary one, making the offer more of a marketing ploy for the bank than anything else.
Recently, Orman has also come under fire for not anticipating the meltdown of the financial system and for being a sometime cheerleader of investing in real estate. For her part, Orman says, “I still believe that real estate purchased at the right time, when it made sense, is one of the best investments you will ever make. You cannot live on a stock certificate.”
Orman also pooh-poohs the notion that her own $3.6 million purchase of an apartment in the Plaza hotel at the height of the boom was less than sound. “If I wanted to sell that right now, I could,” she says, adding bullishly that she would “probably” break even on the purchase price, the building’s lawsuits and negative publicity aside. “I gutted it; I put money into it. I think somebody would come and see it and love it and buy it. People who have money, they don’t care.”
She does acknowledge she failed to see rampant corruption in the financial system but says it wasn’t completely her fault. “How do you call a market when the people that are running the banks and the brokerage firms are lying to you through their teeth?” Orman says. “How do you call anything? I was naïve enough that I just believed them all.”
Of course, there were a number of people — from economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini to financial writers like William Greider — who predicted the financial crisis would unfold almost exactly as it did. “Yeah, but I wasn’t listening to them,” Orman says.
If the author’s supposed shortcomings and potential conflicts of interest haven’t unleashed a backlash à la Jim Cramer, it’s probably because the core message of her philosophy was eerily prescient. For years, she warned that chronic overspending was going to come back and bite consumers in the butt and advised they cut back on everything from magazine subscriptions to vacations to having the windows cleaned.
Orman is proud of her own financial investment strategy. In 2007, she told Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine that she was keeping most of her fortune (estimated then to be around $25 million) in municipal bonds with just $1 million in the stock market.
At the time, a number of her peers pounced, asserting this was an overly conservative game plan and wouldn’t work for people less wealthy than herself who rely on higher risk investment strategies to reach financial security later in life. “You see?” Orman says. “I was smart. I put most of my money in municipal bonds. The so-called financial writers said, ‘How can Suze Orman tell you what to do with your money when all of her money is in municipal bonds?’”
She pauses, takes a sip of water, and then delivers the parting shot at her critics: “Well, guess who won?” she says. “Guess. Who. Won.”