Confessions of a Personal Finance Guru

Suze Orman set off quite a stir a few months ago in a New York Times interview. Although some folks were all atwitter to find out she was gay, what really had people in the personal finance world talking was the fact that the most successful personal finance writer in the country had the bulk of her $25 million portfolio in conservative municipal bonds, with only about $1 million invested in the stock market.

My buddy Chuck Jaffe, a MarketWatch columnist and not exactly a Suze fan, had a particularly good time that little factoid. Chuck has often criticized Suze's advice as too conservative, and her lack of personal exposure to the stock market confirmed his suspicions that she was out of touch with the needs of everyday people. “In short,” he thundered, “the person being trusted as everyone's financial adviser has a portfolio that few people could live with.”

I think Suze should be allowed to invest any way she wants to, but the whole kerfluffle points up an irony of personal finance columnizing: the more successful we pundits are, the less our lives resemble those of the majority of our readers.

I was thinking about that when J.D. asked if I'd be willing to write a little exposé for his site on how well I follow my own advice.

“I always wonder just how personal finance gurus lead their lives,” J.D. wrote in an email. “Do they really follow the advice they give? Are they frugal? Do they put their money in index funds? Do they drive older cars? I think this is a question many people have. I also think it's one reason they read Get Rich Slowly: I quite clearly do follow my own advice, or try to.”

So do I — mostly. At J.D.'s request, I'm pulling back the curtain a bit to show you where I walk my talk, and where I'm full of (well-meaning) hot air.

In case you're not familiar with my work: I'm the most-read personal finance columnist on the Web. I write a twice-weekly column for MSN Money and a nationally syndicated newspaper column. I'm also the author of three books about finance:

You can find out more about me, if you want, at But in answer to J.D.'s questions:

Am I frugal? Congenitally. Most of the time.

I grew up in a middle-class family with a dad who worked as an electric journeyman at the local power plant and a stay-at-home mom who had the Depression-era baby's classic aversion to debt. We had a garden, we canned, we rinsed and reused baggies. My mom went back to work to help pay my college tuition, while I worked two to four part-time jobs each semester to make ends meet. I graduated without student loan or credit card debt.

I've never been much of a shopper, and was taught to pay credit card balances in full every month. (I have carried credit card debt a couple of times in my life — for cash flow reasons, not because we couldn't pay the whole bill.) Since my early 20s, when I started working as a daily newspaper reporter, I've saved 15% to 20% — and sometimes more — of my income. Most of it goes into retirement funds and the majority of those are invested in stock mutual funds.

But a lot of the things I used to do to save money I now do mostly to save the environment: things like turning off lights, using a programmable thermostat, walking or biking instead of driving the car.

And now that I travel a lot, I've developed an appreciation for luxuries that would have been unthinkable in my salad days: things like membership to an airline lounge and occasionally paying for a first-class ticket, when I can't qualify for an upgrade with frequent flyer miles. Flying coach these days reminds me way too much of riding the Greyhound bus during college, and I'm lucky enough to be able to afford an alternative.

Do I put my money in index funds? Yes. Mostly.

I'm a confirmed believer that people who think they're going to beat the market probably are deluding themselves. I know I would be; I'm way too busy to monitor individual stocks or actively-managed mutual funds.

But a recent review of our portfolio showed that while most of our money is in broad-market index funds, we're still hanging on to a few actively-managed funds I bought before I'd become firmly convinced of the futilely of trying to predict market-beaters. Like the cobbler's children with no shoes, my portfolio's overdue for a clean-up and rebalancing. Thanks, J.D., for goading me into it.

Do I drive an older car? Oh, boy. Do I.

I'm the proud driver of a 1993 SUV with—ta-da—250,000 miles on it. I inherited it from my husband, who upgraded to a later-model Volvo. (The man actually cares what he drives, unlike me.) I'd eventually like to replace it with a more fuel-efficient car, but at this point I drive so few miles that it doesn't make sense to replace it. Besides that, I'm oddly curious to see how long the old beast will hold out.

I've also learned a lot about money over the years by making mistakes. I bought “retirement property” when I was in my 20s (anybody want 14 acres in Alaska, 80 miles from the nearest road?). After years of railing about the insanity of the dot-com boom, I sunk $2,000 into a tech fund in — get this — March 2000, about a week before the bubble started to burst. And the last time we bought a house, I forgot (yes, forgot) about closing costs, and had to sell off some investments at the last minute to cover closing costs. (Fortunately, the stock market cooperated with me for once — you're not supposed to keep short-term money, like down payments and closing costs, in stock or stock mutual fund investments lest they take a dive right when you need the money.)

But yeah, overall I've followed my own advice. I've avoided toxic debt including credit card debt; put a pile away for retirement; and invested a ton of money over the years in fun and experiences. I've traveled around the world, earned my pilot's license, threw some great parties, took two sabbaticals to care for my dying mother, and am in the process of raising a wonderful daughter (who may turn out to be our more expensive experience yet, but is soooo worth it). I firmly believe that managing money well helps you live life well, and that's the message I hope to communicate to readers — regardless of where they happen to be on the road to financial health.

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