Suze Orman is one of those singular personalities in the financial business who seem to be right on the pulse of everyone they meet.
She’s written books, starred in her own television show, and made innumerable appearances in person.
Like Oprah and Bono, she’s nearly a one-name-only celebrity. Say “Suze” and you know who I mean.
While she gives a lot of solid advice, one bit she uses on TV really resonates with viewers and, frankly, with financial advisers like myself.
I’m talking about the long-running “Can I Afford It?” segment on CNBC.
You know how this goes. Orman takes a call from a listener who wants to buy something unusual, provides a thumbnail sketch of his or her finances, and then asks, “Can I afford it?”
Naturally, Orman often answers in the negative, but not before teasing out enough detail to explain why. Sometimes she approves, but also explains why in detail.
It’s great TV. We all harbor a natural desire to learn what others think of as financial priorities, and of course we anonymously judge them for it.
Related video: What Suze Orman learned from her biggest money regret (provided by CNBC)
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As an adviser myself, I totally get why Suze is tough on people who need to hear what they can and cannot do with their money.
In a nutshell, answering the “Can I afford it?” question is the real job of any serious retirement adviser. Unfortunately, too few of us are in the business of that kind of advising.
Instead, retirement advice is relegated to the back burner. Most so-called advisers instead are glorified fund salespeople, and too often they are compensated by the very funds they sell.
So let’s play “Can I afford it?” Consider two retirement savers.
One is a 25-year educator with a pension, a modest, paid-off home and $200,000 in a 403(b) retirement plan at work.
The other is a middle-aged executive with a comfortable six-figure income, a large outstanding mortgage and four kids headed to university, but only about $50,000 in retirement savings.
The typical financial adviser is drawn immediately to the second client, the executive. That’s because a high current income suggests a lack of sensitivity toward cost.
The first client, the teacher, is not of interest to the fund-selling adviser. The 403(b) is not immediately investable elsewhere, nor is the pension. There’s no easy way to extract money from the client.
Imagine these two folks calling up Suze Orman to ask about hiring investment help. Can they afford it?
If either chooses an adviser who pushes actively managed mutual funds, certainly not. Thanks to high fees, a third or more of their investment gains will go to middlemen.
Can you afford advice?
So what’s the right answer, considering the details? The first client might be in a 403(b) that has extraordinarily low overhead and low fund fees.
Staying in that plan would make sense, especially if index funds are part of the equation. If not, a rollover IRA invested in index funds could be a better course of action.
The second client needs more help. The mortgage, university expenses, and the low relative savings rate suggest a financial reckoning is ahead, one not easily overcome.
That’s exactly where an unconflicted, low-fee adviser can help, and they do exist. A Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) is required by law to act in the interest of their clients first, which is a world of difference.
Getting solid, reliable advice that pulls no punches is important, whatever your financial backstory. That’s why Suze clicks with her viewers.
She’s a smart adviser, now retired to a shimmering mansion in the Bahamas and spending her days fishing. The question for the rest of us is, how do we reach a level of financial comfort in retirement?
It starts by asking if you can afford the advice that you get and if that advice is truly relevant to your own story.
Mitch Tuchman brings the low-cost, scientific investment approach used by elite pensions and endowments to everyday retirement investors through Rebalance. The firm manages retirement accounts with portfolios built by its Investment Advisory Board: Burt Malkiel (Princeton professor who wrote “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”), Charles Ellis (past chair of Yale’s Endowment) and Jay Vivian (ran IBM’s retirement funds). Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchellTuchman.