Suze Orman was working as a waitress and making $400 a month at 29 years old. She then decided to take a chance on a major career change and landed a job as a broker for Merrill Lynch.
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Having been on both ends of the financial spectrum, Orman knows what it takes to make the leap from broke to wealthy, and is now one of the most respected voices in personal finance — as well as a New York Times bestselling author with more than 25 million books in circulation. According to Celebrity Net Worth, she is worth some $75 million, indicating that she’s followed her own financial advice for saving, investing and preparing for retirement.
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As any self-made millionaire will tell you, going from rags to riches takes hard work. It also calls for tons of tried and true personal finance strategies to maintain and build financial success.
Live Within Your Needs but Below Your Means
Living within your needs but below your means is the golden rule of the Suze Orman budget. Although food and shelter are needs, you might be spending too much on these essentials.
“How much you choose to spend on your basic needs is a squishy number dependent on the choices you make,” Orman wrote in a blog post on her website. “For example, a mortgage lender may tell you that you will qualify for a $250,000 mortgage. But if you can find a great home that meets your family’s needs and it costs $195,000 you will save a lot of money that can be used for other important goals. The $195,000 home fits your needs.”
Don’t Lease a Car — Buy Instead
“Leasing is a horrible financial move,” Orman wrote in a blog post. “It is the auto industry’s way to get you to buy a car you can’t really afford. (…) The big problem is that when you lease there’s the temptation to keep leasing forever. So every three years — the standard lease length — you turn in your car and lease another. That means you are signing on for never-ending monthly car payments.”
Orman explained that buying is better because once you pay off your loan, you have that extra monthly payment to build your emergency fund, contribute to a retirement account, save for a home down payment or meet another financial goal.
Stop Paying Extra for Minor Conveniences
The difference in the cost of paying for food delivery instead of cooking or hopping in an Uber instead of taking the bus might seem small, but the expense of always taking the convenient option will add up over time.
“It adds up big time,” Orman told CNBC. “Stop leasing cars, stop eating out, stop doing the (thing) that’s wasting your money and makes your life easier, because in the long run it’s going to make it harder.”
Cut Out Your Coffee Habit
“I wouldn’t buy a cup of coffee anywhere, ever — and I can afford it — because I would not insult myself by wasting money that way,” Orman told CNBC.
She believes that $3 spent daily on coffee is better off going into a retirement fund or used to meet other savings goals. For example, if you spend $100 a month on coffee and put that money into an IRA instead, that would grow to about $1 million after 40 years given a 12% rate of return.
“You need to think about it as: You are peeing $1 million down the drain as you are drinking that coffee,” Orman said. “Do you really want to do that? No.”
Pay With Debit Instead of Credit Whenever Possible
“There is no more expensive form of bondage than spending more than you have and paying interest of 15% or more on your credit card,” Orman wrote in a blog post.
She recommends paying for everything with a prepaid debit card or a debit card that is tied to a checking account that does not have overdraft coverage.
Pay Your Student Loans on Time
“Make paying back your student loan the very first bill you pay,” Orman wrote on her Facebook page. “It is more important that you make your student loan payments on time each month than any other (bill). Student loans are the one debt that by law cannot be wiped out in bankruptcy. And the (government) has all sorts of ways to get the money you owe including taking it directly out of your paycheck. Don’t fall behind on your student loan debt.”
Get Out of Debt ASAP
“Debt is bondage,” Orman told CNBC. “You will never, ever, ever have financial freedom if you have debt.”
Not only is it expensive to carry debt, but it can also negatively impact the choices you make in your career.
“When you are in debt, you feel it,” Orman said. “Your boss can feel that. You render yourself powerless. You walk into an interview and you need that job because you have to pay for your debt.”
That’s a problem because “powerlessness repels people,” she said.
Set Up an Automatic Deposit Into Your Savings Accounts
It’s easy to spend your entire paycheck when it all goes into your checking account. To counter this, Orman recommends setting up a regular automatic deposit into your savings account.
“It can be $10 a month, $200 or $1,000,” she wrote on her blog. “All I insist is that you make this automatic. That is a proven way to stay committed to a savings goal. Having money zapped from your checking account into your savings accounts is free too. The set it and forget it approach is how you will reach your savings goals.”
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Have 8 Months of Living Expenses Saved in an Emergency Fund
Having a healthy emergency fund is essential to ensure you’re financially protected when “what ifs” strike. Orman said that having eight months worth of living expenses is what everyone should strive for.
“I know that’s a lot, but I want you and your loved ones to be OK if you were ever laid off, or sick for an extended period of time,” she wrote in a blog post. “Sure, it could take years to reach your eight-month goal. That’s totally okay. The important issue is that you are starting to save today and so every month you will be moving closer to your goal.”
Follow Your Instincts
If your gut is telling you a financial decision is a bad one, don’t ignore the signs. Orman gave this example to CNBC: “A friend, relative, loved one will approach you saying, ‘I need to borrow $5,000.’ You’ll think, ‘I don’t want to’ and yet you say ‘Okay.’ Think twice before you say ‘yes’ if your gut is saying ‘no.'”
Never Co-Sign a Loan
Orman told CNBC that it’s a bad idea to co-sign a loan for a friend or family member. If they default on the loan or pay it late, you will be financially responsible. This means your money — and your credit score — will be on the line.
Don’t Rush Into Buying a Home
“I know a lot of you think the key to wealth is buying a home, paying it off and owning your own home outright,” Orman told CNBC. “Sometimes, depending on where you live, it makes sense to simply rent.”
This is especially true if you live in an expensive area, she said. If you do, consider renting and investing any extra income you have in the stock market. Eventually, you may save enough that buying a home is more financially feasible.
If You’re New to Investing, Go With a Low-Risk Option
Orman told CNBC that the biggest mistake she sees young investors make is buying stock in a company because it’s cool or trendy.
With this strategy, “maybe you’ll hit it right, maybe you’ll hit it wrong,” she said.
Orman suggested investing a set amount each month into an index fund or ETF instead of picking individual stocks.
Be Patient When It Comes To Long-Term Investing
Your investment portfolio should have a good mix of stocks and bonds and include low-cost index mutual funds or ETFs, Orman wrote in a blog post. Once you have the right mix, there’s nothing you should do aside from contributing regularly and reviewing your portfolio annually.
“All you really need to do is check your account once a year to see if you need to make any changes to bring your overall allocation back to your target,” she wrote. “Other than that, sit tight. Especially when the stock market hits a rough period and everyone is freaking out about a bear market. Not you. Because you are going to remind yourself how patience pays off.”
Orman cited Morningstar data showing that someone who was invested in U.S. stocks from 2000 through 2017 earned an annualized return of 7.3%, even though there were two major bear markets during that time.
Don’t Underestimate How Long You Could Live When Planning For Retirement
“I have long recommended that you base your retirement planning on living to at least 90; to be even safer planning to age 95 is even smarter,” Orman wrote in a Facebook post. “Anyone who makes it to age 65 basically has a 50-50 chance of still being alive in his or her mid-80s. And living into your 90s is not nearly as rare as you may think.”
Orman added that not being financially prepared to live into your 90s is “a very costly mistake.”
Lower the Fees You Pay On Investment Funds
Mutual funds and ETFs charge an expense ratio, which is an annual fee that is deducted from your fund’s performance. Keeping this fee low will protect you in down markets.
“If your portfolio is full of investments that charge 1% or more, I am telling you that the best move to make today — and that will pay off for the rest of your life — is to focus on lowering your costs,” Orman wrote in a blog post. “Paying less in fees means keeping more of your money growing for your future. And that’s extra important for the times when market returns are low, or even negative.”
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Don’t Forget To Roll Over Old 401(k) Plans
When you leave a job, you have the option of keeping your retirement account in the old 401(k) plan, but Orman suggests either converting it to an IRA or rolling it over into your new company’s 401(k) if they allow.
“Does this take a little bit of time and paperwork? Sure. But it can be more than worth your time if you have money sitting in funds that charge annual expenses of 0.25% or more,” Orman wrote in a blog post. “That’s because there are plenty of low-cost index mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) that charge as little as 0.10%-0.25% in annual expenses. And that can mean big savings.”
Choose Your 401(k) Plan’s Cheapest Options
Orman also recommends reading the fine print in your 401(k) plan and going with the option that costs the least money. “While you are limited to the funds offered within your plan’s lineup, it’s in your power to choose the lowest cost options,” she wrote in a blog post.
Saving on fees this way could save you a lot of money in the long term.
Use a Financial Advisor — Just Make Sure You Vet Them First
“In my opinion, if you have a good (financial advisor), they’re worth their weight in gold,” Orman told CNBC. However, it’s important to note that not every advisor is worthy of your trust.
“Don’t think that they’re always going to have your best interest at heart, because probably they have their own best interest at heart,” she said.
It’s best to work with a fiduciary, who is legally obligated to act in your best interest. And before working with anyone, vet them by asking questions like, “How are you compensated for our working together?” and “What other services do you provide to me?“
Not only does exercising and living a healthy lifestyle improve your quality of life, but it can also save you money in the long term.
“A married 65-year-old couple with just typical prescription drug costs in retirement that wants to have a high confidence they will be able to handle their retirement medical expenses is projected to need nearly $150,000 less over their lifetime than a couple with very high prescription drug costs,” Orman wrote in a blog post. “I hope that’s ample motivation to get you moving a bit.”
Prioritize Retirement Funds Before College Funds
In her book “Women & Money,” Orman explains why saving for retirement has to take precedence overpaying for your children’s college education: Your children can take out loans for college, but you cannot take out loans for retirement. That means that if you haven’t saved enough for your retirement, you will ultimately become a financial burden to your kids.
Pay Off All Your Debts Before You Retire
“Paying off all your debts before you retire is the ticket to a more secure retirement,” Orman wrote in a blog post. “Your bills will be lower, which is what you want when you are going to be living on a fixed income. Besides, there’s the emotional benefit. If your living costs are lower — because the mortgage and home equity loan are paid off, and you don’t have credit card debt nagging at your conscience — your stress level is going to be lower. And isn’t that what you deserve in retirement?”
Delay Collecting Social Security Benefits Until 70 If Possible
“Delaying Social Security can be the most precious tool in your retirement planning kit,” Orman told AARP in an interview. “Delaying your Social Security start date until age 70 entitles you to a monthly payout that’s more than 75% higher than your age-62 benefit. That’s a whole lot more money to support a much older you.”
Don’t Take Out a Reverse Mortgage in Your 60s
“Think of a reverse mortgage as a last-resort emergency fund in retirement, not a primary piece of your retirement plan from day one,” Orman wrote in her book “The Money Class.”
“If money is so tight at age 62 that you think you need a reverse mortgage, my concern is what happens at age 72 or 82? If you tap all your home equity through a reverse at 62 and then at 72 you realize you can’t really afford the home, you will have to sell the home, and you may end up giving most or all of the sale price back to the lender to settle up.”
Make Sure You Have These 4 Documents for Estate Planning
When it comes to estate planning, Orman recommends you have the following documents prepared:
- Revocable trust
- Financial power of attorney
- Durable power of attorney for healthcare
“If you die with no will or trust in place, the courts will follow state law to disburse your assets — no matter what you may have once promised your sister or told your spouse,” Orman wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine.
“If you die with only a will in place, the courts will have to give the document a stamp of approval before divvying up your estate. This is known as probate, and the cost of this necessary judicial step can eat up more than 5% of your estate’s value and ensnare your heirs for a year or longer in a legal tangle. You can avoid bequeathing that heartache and headache to your loved ones by setting up the essential documents so that when you die, your assets go exactly where you want, as quickly as you want, with the least amount of expense.”
It Doesn’t Matter How Much Money You Make — You Can Still Be Smart With It
Orman may be raking in millions, but her insights can be used by any American in any income category. It’s easy to get into the thinking that you don’t make enough money to require investment strategies and other personal finance know-how, but this just isn’t true.
“It does not matter how much money you make,” Orman wrote on her blog in March. “Being powerful with money is all about making smart choices. You can make $35,000 and be far more money-smart than someone who makes $350,000.”
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Nicole Spector contributed to the reporting for this article.