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The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke
Author:   Suze Orman
Publisher:   Riverhead (2005)
ISBN:   1573222976     (hardback, 394 pages)

(NOTE: This review also appeared in the June 2005 issue of Cheapskate Monthly.)

Look, I told you this book was going to come flying at you from a fresh angle, and that is going to start right here.   — Suze Orman

Make no mistake: Suze Orman is today’s goddess of financial connect-the-dots.

Her latest book, The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke, offers a snappy and charged perspective on money matters which most directly relate to the younger crowd. With YF&B, Suze pulls up a chair for the fresh-out-of-college audience – one whose reliance on debt and plastic began practically in the crib. These hipsters’ greatest asset, she says, is their youth. And they’ll need it to flourish in a world where the rules of money have changed . . . and changed drastically.

“Do you realize how young twenty, twenty-five, thirty, or even thirty-five is?” she asks. “There’s a pretty good chance you are going to be living well into your nineties. That shouldn’t be depressing; that should make you excited.”

Umm . . . okay. For me, “excited” was discovering that YF&B leans much less on the introspective than do Orman’s previous writings. Here Suze is hard-nosed and pragmatic, laying out a first- to second- to third- to home-base plan for getting your financial act in gear. It’s a welcome change for readers who, to this point, might have found Suze’s written advice a bit too nebulous. YF&B is much more of a “How-to” guide than a touchy-feely sermon on financial karma.

YF&B is as colorful in appearance and layout (if nothing else, it’s guaranteed to color-up your bookshelves) as it is in content. The dust cover claims it is not “your parents’ money book.” While it’s tough to know exactly what financial writings my parents might have had access to, I suspect their versions of Financial Ed 101 covered and answered not nearly as much practical info as YF&B does.

From FICO scores (“…the single biggest impact on turning around your financial situation”) to credit-card usage (“I am not going to feed you some head-in-the-sand position that credit cards are the devil in plastic”) to big purchases (car leases are “seductive but stupid”), Orman comes loaded with valuable information. In the book, she is also consistently candid, vivid, and willing to break with tradition. Entire chapters are dedicated to understanding and improving your FICO score. Suze gives the same weighty treatment to student loans, purchasing cars, purchasing homes, and deciphering retirement plans, among other topics.

A fair chunk of the book's content is set up in a "Q & A" format, appearing like this:

Suze then spends 2 or 3 pages delving into her answer and the reasoning behind it. As a sample, her answer to the above problem begins like this:

If you are paying 18 percent interest on a credit card and earning just 1 or 2 percent on interest, which is going to be taxed, in a savings account, then you may be Y&B, but you're shaky on the Fabulous front. It makes no sense to pay 18 percent when you have money sitting around earning just 2 percent or so. You can't stop being broke by volunteering to lose 16 percent a year.

Of course, I understand the urge to have a savings account. I am a huge fan of the emergency fund; it is the ultimate in financial security. But if you have credit card debt, you don't really have financial security, no matter how big your savings account is. So my advice from both a financial and emotional point of view is to use your savings to pay off as much of your credit card debt as possible. Don't panic about not having any emergency money. In a true emergency, you can always use your credit card to pay bills. And as I discuss in Chapter 5, there are other creative places to find emergency cash while you are rebuilding your savings account.

Another excerpt, from Chapter 5 ("Save Up"):

Warning: This riff is not for the YF&B who are cash-strapped, because they simply don't make enough money to cover their living expenses. This advice is for the YF&-not-so-B who are finally bringing in some money but still can't finish a month with something left in the bank. If that's your MO, you are what I call "broke by choice." You are making enough to live on, but you are making choices — conscious or not — to spend all, or more than, you make.

You are spending money that you don't even have to impress people you do not even know or like. It is such a colossal mistake. When you waste money simply because it's easier to do so, or because you feel you're entitled to it, that is just plain stupid. And don't feed me the crap that you only live once and you deserve to have fun while you're young. Hey, there is a ton of fun to be had later, too — when you can afford it! If you don't make the right choices now, you are going to be so broke when you are older that you will be absolutely miserable. Look, I'm not going to tell you what you can live without. You're looking to cut back, not cut out.

Financial purists, upon reading YF&B, have not always bestowed it with hugs and kisses. The commotion (and sometimes dissension) regarding YF&B has focused on Orman’s suggestion that young, up-and-coming professionals actually should use their credit cards to bridge gaps in spending. It’s true; Orman makes this soda-spewer of a claim in Chapter 3. Viewers of her cable television show know that when it comes to human foibles and motivations, Orman is nothing if not a master tactician. In this case, the card-usage thing is something of a publicity hook. Dear Suze isn’t about to let her YF&B babies speed headlong into revolving-debt doom.

“This strategy is nothing but a lifesaver,” she writes. “I think it is perfectly reasonable to lean on your card for monthly living expenses, but you are to keep those [monthly] charges to less than 1 percent of your annual gross income.” This applies, optimally, to a youngster struggling on low wages, but working in a field about which she is passionate — and which holds decent promise of higher pay down the road. “My thinking is that within a few years, your career should be picking up some steam,” Suze continues. “And at that point you would be able to start paying down the balance.”

Ah, but it’s a dubious suggestion, isn’t it?

Realistically, how many YF&Bers have a hope of maintaining that 1-percent discipline? One percent, maybe? Handing a twentysomething a credit card, along with the guidance that it’s okay to use for a limited amount of “basic living expenses,” is somewhat akin to handing a toddler a rainbowed bag of Jelly Bellies and telling them they can have just one.

Yeah, right. Leave the room and see what happens.

Nevertheless, I feel that YF&B would make a tremendous gift to a late-teen or twentysomething just beginning (okay … NEEDING!) to show interest in the world of personal finance. Perhaps most telling: YF&B is a book I dearly wish I’d read in college. Say, in 1992. When I began watching my student loan dollars pile up. And when I got my first credit card.

Maybe — just maybe — Suze could’ve sliced the “B” off of my YF&B.

(You can find more discussion of YF&B in my blog, "Money Musings." Check out the entries here and here.)

Michael | June 11, 2005

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