Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
My street name is "the Money Lady." That's what strangers say when they stop me: "Look, it's the Money Lady!" Emphasis on money. Early in my career, they seemed to be commenting primarily on the fact that I was always popping up somewhere giving financial advice. But as the years have gone by, I've sensed that the people I meet are referring to my success—and that I am powerful in their eyes because I've made money.
They've got it all wrong. Money didn't make me powerful. And if it weren't for the fact that I'm usually standing in a crosswalk when people stop me, I'd tell them that when I first had a lot of money, it served the purpose of showing me exactly how powerless I was. In fact, money has taught me a great many lessons. Let me share them with you:
1. Power comes from who you are, not what you have
Society has programmed all of us to think that external achievement is what gives us power. But that's only perceived power, and it can be fleeting. I can't tell you how many times my grandfather would say, "Suze, they can take your house, they can take your job, they can take your money, they can even take your mind, but they can't take your heart. So you have to grow up valuing your own heart, who you are."
My grandfather understood the difference between external and internal power. It was something that took me years—and a number of painful experiences—to comprehend.
2. Money has no power of its own
You alone are the power source. You are the one who makes the choices to spend money, to save money, to borrow money. That's why I say money is such an amazing teacher: What you choose to do with your money shows whether you are truly powerful or powerless. [See: When to save and when to pay off debt]
When I started to make serious money in my 30s, I was exhibit A for external power. I drove a fancy car, had a closetful of expensive clothes, wore a watch that cost the equivalent (at that time) of a 25 percent down payment on a house. Why did I have all those things? Because I was dating someone who was seriously wealthy, and felt I needed to keep up with the rich crowd I found myself in. I, Suze Orman, took money out of my 401(k) to pay for that pricey Cartier watch. And when I ran through all my money, I started using the bank's: I eventually had more than $60,000 in credit card debt. How could that be?
I'd done the work—made the choice—to earn money, but then I made another choice: to use the money not to build personal wealth or move toward financial security but to try to impress people. Money didn't make me powerful. It just showed me how sadly powerless I was.