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Truth and Honesty: 30 Minutes with Suze Orman

As the eighth anniversary of The Suze Orman Show approaches, we sat down with the personal finance guru to discuss the story behind her success — both personally and professionally — her approach to life and money, and what keeps her going when the alarm goes off at 5:15 each morning.

CNBC: When you started out at Merrill Lynch in 1980, did you ever think you'd be as successful as you are today?

Suze: No. If you remember the story correctly, I never thought I would continue with Merrill Lynch because the manager who hired me told me I would be out of there in six months because women, in his opinion, belonged barefoot and pregnant. And he hired me to fill his women's quota, so this is beyond my wildest dreams.

And in spite of him, you were successful — you even left and started your own business, but you had a little bit of a rough time financially. In fact, I was reading the story in your book "The Laws of Money" about you getting a $40 speeding ticket you couldn't afford to pay. I'm just curious, was that the point that you formulated the basis of the Suze money strategy we see today?

The money strategy you see today came from many things. It came from me sitting in a Denny's restaurant in Emeryville, Calif., with my fancy Cartier watch on, and my leased BMW outside and my Armani clothes, having $250,000 in credit card debt and knowing the waitress waiting on me had more money than I did because there was no way she had so much debt.
And that's when I realized I was living a financial lie, that everybody thought I was this wildly successful financial advisor, but here I was really penniless and powerless. Then as I started to turn my financial life around because I was honest with everybody and told them what I didn't have more than what I had, then I started to notice the same traits within my clients, that they weren't honest, they weren't doing the things that they should be doing either. So it all came about one client and one personal experience at a time.

So it really was those basics that got you where you are today.

Yes, absolutely.

And you still live by those basics today, even though you're significantly better off?

You know, money's a funny thing. When you don't have money there are all these things you want. When you have more money than you know what to do with, those things really don't matter. You can look at them and for a minute say you want them, but then all of a sudden, some intelligent gene takes charge in your head and you don't go along with it.

The key to my life has always been: When do you buy what you need versus what you can afford when you can afford more than what you need? And I've never needed a large home — now, I have five homes, but they're all relatively very small homes — so, I'm not somebody who went out to buy a $10 million home when a $1 million home would've done.

I do really live within my means. I have absolutely no debt. If I don't have the money to write a check, then I can't afford it. I never, ever, ever spend old money, so I'm only allowed by my own standards to buy something new with new money that comes in. So, if I sell a home, I can't take that money to buy a new home. That money I already had, that goes into the investment account. If I want to buy a new home, it has to be with new money that comes in.

About three years ago, you estimated your personal worth at roughly $30 million. That was before the crash, and you were pretty heavily invested in muni bonds, a lot of real estate — both of those took a pretty big hit. How are you financially today?

Actually, I didn't take a big hit. My municipal bond portfolio is up significantly, significantly — not just a little — significantly. Remember, as people were trying to figure out where else they should put money because interest rates were so low, they started to go into municipal bonds. It actually caused the prices of municipal bonds to go up. I was in good quality bonds, so my net worth has increased, not decreased.

Sounds like you're very glad you weren't heavily invested in the stock market.

Yes. Totally.

Looking back at the eight years you've been on CNBC, what's your favorite moment?

My favorite memory, and I have a lot, but my favorite memory has to be of one person who came on the show who had $35,000 of credit card debt because of Kentucky Fried Chicken wings.

That was a big one for me, because that's when I first started to connect health and wealth. It was a turning point, somehow. Usually there's one thing that I take from every single show that always sticks with me. It doesn't have to be the people's names or even their finances. It's usually an "ah-ha!" moment, whether it's someone looking into the screen and saying "I'm declaring bankruptcy" because they need to and being proud of it, or a wife finally standing up to her husband, or a daughter or a son realizing that they don't want to make the mistakes their parents made.

Almost every moment is my favorite moment, which is why we're still here after eight years. This isn't just a show to me. This really is a mission to help people, and we are.

Is Anyone Listening?

So even after giving financial advice for going on three decades now, it doesn't sound like you've hit a wall where you say "I am sick of hearing these same questions over and over again, are you people not listening to what I'm saying?" It sounds like it's still new and fresh to you.

Yeah, I love it. I love it. I love when we're stopped on the street and people come up to me. Whether it's snowing, whether it's freezing out, I will always take time to answer their questions. I'm always the last person to leave an event.

At a book signing — remember I've done nine books so I've done many book signings — to this day, I will stay and close down that bookstore to make sure every single person that wants to gets their book signed. You don't do that when you think it's just a job. You do that because you love what you're doing, and I love what I'm doing and I care about what I'm doing. I care about every caller, every e-mailer, every Tweeter.

How many of your Tweets do you respond to?

Every single one of them. And by myself, too. I've Tweeted over 11,000 times and I don't think people really believe it's me, but it absolutely is. Nobody else touches my Twitter site but me, period. Even when Amy (Feller, Executive Producer of The Suze Orman Show) wants to make an announcement about the show, she sends an e-mail to me and I Tweet it.

What's the one question you've never been asked in an interview that you'd like to answer?

If I were to be asked what's the most important thing in life. I've never been asked that, and I think a lot of people would think Suze Orman would say money. But I wouldn't. I would say that the most important thing in life is truthfulness and honesty. I'd say the most important thing in life is doing what is right versus what's easy. And if you can always come from a place of honesty, if you can always come from the truth, if you can always honor the people and places and serve them and the times around you, then you'll live the wealthiest life you possibly could. so the most important thing in life to me is honesty and truth. Not money.

What's the key to the success of the Suze Orman show?

Listen, the Suze Orman Show started at MSNBC in a makeshift studio that wasn't even our studio with Dan (Switzen) the director, Amy Feller the executive producer and a few other people. To this day, Dan is still the director, Amy Feller is still the executive producer. To this day, we're a small group that respect each other and love each other. And the reason that the Suze Orman Show is successful is because of the people who work behind it.

We're not out to hurt one another, we stick by one another, we understand when something goes wrong — nobody is yelled at, nobody is degraded — and every single person is respected. Because behind the scenes there is honoring going on, when you watch it you feel special because the people putting out the show feel special. That's the key to the success of this show.

So what's next for the show? Are you going to keep doing what you're doing? Do you see any new adventures, any new direction?

As far as the show goes, I hope it goes on for as long as it makes sense and our ratings still make us the No. 1-rated show on CNBC.

Suze, how much preparation do you do before each show?

The "Can I Afford It" segments — I get a packet this thick on each person so that I know every single thing about the people before I approve or deny them. Now obviously, we don't show that on screen because there's only so much time. But I know who I'm going to approve or deny before we ever go on the air.

The one main guest at the front of every show, I know everything about them as well. And Amy and I and the producers will talk about them in great detail to decide which direction should we go, what do you think, and things like that.

As far as the call-ins, I do not have a clue what those are. So every call is taken on the spot, live. There isn't as much preparation as one might think. I'm not a teleprompted talent in most cases, so what you see, especially the openings, come straight from the heart and are not scripted.

That's a lot of pressure.

No, it's just a lot of truth. That's another reason why I think the show is successful. I'm not reading a teleprompter, I'm talking to the camera, I'm talking into the soul of the person looking. I'm not looking at words — I'm looking at you.

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