Last night the Suze Orman show was a repeat. That was surprising enough, but it was a repeat that when it first aired I thought gave poor advice. The setup was this: an employed woman in the social work therapy field has been spending unwisely, and now wants help. She has zero money, plus college debt, car loan debt, and credit card debt. Nothing unusual there.
The shocker was that this person admitted she had forged her mother's name to a college loan application. Suze Orman has several times had people on her show whose irresponsible parents had forged their names to get new credit cards, and effectively destroyed their child's credit before the child even reached majority. In no case did anyone suggest prosecuting any of these forgers for what, in my mind at least, appears to be a criminal act. And so it was last night on Suze's show. She chided the guest for being so self-centered and determined to get her own way, and that was that.
Suze did come down pretty hard on the guest for opening an account at an eyeglass store, buying expensive designer sunglasses, and then never paying a dime on the account. Suze likened it to shoplifting, which I thought was an apt analogy. If something is bought with a general credit card that is being used and paid regularly, the merchant does eventually get some payment. But if it's bought with a store card and no payments are made to the store account, the store is out the full amount.
Here's where I disagree with Suze: She suggested a very tough cutback of monthly expenses. I took one look at the guest and knew that would never happen. You don't tell a dog owner who has a good-paying job that she can't afford to own a dog. You tell that to a dog owner who does not have a job and is about to be evicted or foreclosed on. Then the person might listen. Suze also wanted to cut a fairly small amount per month of entertainment expenses to the bone. It doesn't make sense; people need to have an entertainment budget. I get that this person's bad behavior might cry out for punishment; Suze did confront her about making excuses to justify every rash financial action. But demanding an unrealistic period of financial sackcloth and ashes won't work.
Suze was correct to tell the guest that she needed to earn more money and use that money to pay off her student loans and then her debts. But Suze was so busy talking about cuts to ordinary monthly expenses that she didn't give the details or emphasize that making more money was the only way the guest could balance her budget. If you don't have enough money to pay your bills, you need to get more money. Spending less is only a temporary fix unless you have been spending like a wild man. Saving $40 a month by having no entertainment budget--hardly a wild man amount--is meaningless when you can earn $1,000 more a month by just working longer hours. Suze was too concerned with punishment and not enough interested in building up the guest's feeling of having the power to solve her financial woes. And yet the guest is to receive no punishment for forgery or for messing up her mother's credit situation. Nor is she to make restitution to the eyeglass store she never paid for her designer sunglasses. Not good enough, Suze.
We all do have some power to control our financial problems, some of us more than others. In last night's case, here was a single woman with a very good job, who could easily earn more money, get out of debt, and start a savings program. She could pay back the eyeglass company in just one month. She could also make amends to her mother by paying her a set amount of money every month for several years, to reduce the effects of having ruined her mother's credit score (and thus causing her mother to suffer higher rates on her credit). I think Suze missed the boat on this one.
We all know people who have behaved badly, not to say illegally, with other people's credit and with their own. Probably most of those credit thieves do not repent at all. Instead, they have a complex series of self-justifications that let themselves off the hook. They need to be helped to see the error of their ways, and to see that they do owe restitution. But given the innate selfishness of such people, it's pointless to demand that they make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to make amends. They simply won't do it. Instead, efforts by people like Suze Orman or family members or friends hurt by these selfish people should be aimed at getting the offender to accept moral responsibility to repay the money, not through sacrifice, but through extra work. Work makes us feel good about ourselves; work is empowering. A person who is desperate enough to grab other people's credit or misuse their own to get what they feel they need will benefit from feeling more empowered by doing more work.
I hope this woman comes to realize that her financial life does not have to continue to be a series of self-centered mistakes. It's too bad Suze may not have put her on the right track to squaring herself with those she has hurt. No matter how deeply we bury our sins, we know what we did. Atonement is a very significant act on the way to lasting self-esteem and honor.