Suze Orman
Photo: Robert Trachtenberg
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.

3. Self-worth builds net worth

I realized that until I started acting honestly, I would be broke and unhappy. It was my own aha moment: I realized we spend more than when we feel less than. I felt less than because I could not afford what all those rich people could. But look where that got me—in debt and miserable. It was right then that I started to use money as my guide. I began watching how I was using money and how I was feeling when I made money choices. When I learned to give myself—and my money—the love and respect we both deserved, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. I was no longer racing to keep up; I was so happy being right where I was. Being me. I stopped spending money I didn't have and started living within my means. I had found my power. I was clear on who I was, what I wanted, and what I thought. No more letting the external world define me—I defined me. And it was only when that happened that I was able to dig out of debt and build the lasting net worth I now have.

If you have credit card debt and no savings, and you feel miserable, don't attribute your woes to not having enough money; instead see the lessons your money is trying to teach you. Is it possible you have yet to find your self-worth?

4. Do what's right, not what's easy

Believe me, I know how easy it is to run up credit card debt. I have 60,000 memories of what happens when you act without conscience, doing whatever you want rather than pulling yourself back and considering whether it is right. If I had stopped to have that talk with myself, I would have seen my powerlessness earlier. That would have saved me money and gotten me to happy a lot faster.

To know whether something is right or just easy, I turn to my three gatekeeper questions: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? And I make sure I can answer yes to all three. Is it kind—to me? Is it necessary—for me? Is it true—for me?

I see so many women fail the gatekeeper test when it comes to dealing with loved ones. When a sister asks for a loan to pay off her credit card or a child asks you to cosign a loan for a new car, you jump in and say yes without a moment's hesitation. It is imprinted in your DNA to always give, no questions asked. But if you were to ask yourself the gatekeeper questions, you would often see that what is easy to do is not necessarily right. If you lend money to someone, are you really solving their problem or just getting them off the hook? My experience is that people who are bailed out of trouble often end up back in trouble. How is that help really kind to them? And if you are lending money that depletes your emergency savings, or prevents you from working toward your own financial goals, is that kind or true to yourself? Repeat after me: Say no out of love rather than yes out of fear.