Suze Orman
Photo: Robert Trachtenberg
While the founding fathers weren't thinking about FICO credit scores, 401(k)s, and long-term-care insurance when they declared "the pursuit of happiness" an inalienable right 235 years ago, the financial issues that are a part of our modern-day existence are indeed central to our happiness. I'm not saying that money alone will make you happy. But a lack of money—or a lack of understanding of how to respect, manage, and grow the money you have—will almost certainly make you unhappy.

With so much riding on the financial decisions you make today, it's no wonder that I often receive letters from O readers who want to know whether they're doing all they can to create a secure future. This month I'm answering three of those readers, to tell them exactly how close they are to financial independence—just in time for Independence Day. I invite you to test your own knowledge by giving each person a grade from A to F, before reading on to see my take. Learn from each of these scenarios, and you'll be well on your way to letting your own financial freedom ring.

I received an inheritance in 2010 with which I was able to pay off my debts. My bills now consist of rent, utilities, car insurance, and car lease payments. Is there any downside to paying off my lease in full? I have two and a half years left on it, and I planned its maturity to correspond with my retirement.

How's She Doing? Select one:
A. Great!
B. Not bad but could do better.
C. Just okay.
D. Making a big mistake.
E. Are you kidding me?

Suze's Grade: D

I know this grade seems harsh, but if you read between the lines, it's clear that this woman isn't really building long-term financial independence. It was an inheritance that allowed her to get out of debt—meaning that, in the monetary sense, she got lucky when that money landed in her lap. If she'd paid off her debts by learning to live below her means, I would've given her a much higher grade. I'm also concerned about the fact that she leased a car in the first place. A lease is just an expensive rental; when the lease term is up—typically in three years or so—you don't own the car. You have to either buy it from the leasing company or do what they hope you'll do: Lease a new car. That means you'll be starting all over with a new set of lease payments for three years or more. As I've explained before, it's smarter to buy a used car outright, or if you need to borrow to finance the purchase, to limit yourself to a three-year car loan. That way, after you've made your last loan payment in month 36, you own the car and can continue to drive it for many years without wasting more money on payments. Now for the good news: That this woman is thinking of buying out the lease is a step in the right direction, assuming she will then keep driving the same car for many years. If she never leases a car again, and learns how to make ends meet with her income instead of the inheritance, her grade stands to rise dramatically.

Next: What does Suze think of this couple's retirement plan?

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