Dec. 9, 2009— -- During the holiday season, the mall can be a daunting place. From navigating sales to hunting for the best prices, consumers can get lost.
"Nightline" brought personal finance guru Suze Orman to the Town Center mall in Boca Raton, Fla., and let her run loose to dispense free advice on how to manage finances and keep spending in line.
So, herewith, the rules according to Suze:
1. All credit cards are not created equal.
Orman has been pushing for a credit card revolt. Since some major banks have raised credit card rates to nearly 30 percent, Orman suggests taking a stand, getting rid of bank credit cards and instead turning to credit union or store cards with lower rates.
"For years, I used to say you go into a store, why would you use a store credit card? A store credit card is at a 21, 22 percent interest rate. Why would you do that when you could use a bank credit card, that's 8, 9 percent? It makes no sense," she said.
"But now our store credit cards are at 21 or 22 percent, that's almost 10 percent less than what some of these bank credit cards are charging. ... If that's the only option you have, a bank credit card at 30 percent or a store credit card at 20 or 21 percent ... especially if you are getting a 10 percent discount, to open it up, it's a far better deal," she said.
2. Shop, but do it wisely. Malls can be tempting, so Orman advises to shop with clear intentions and limits.
"Write down what you need. Write it down on a piece of paper. That is, if you are shopping, why are you coming to the mall? You need to think about it before you go," she said.
Orman is amazed at the things people spend their money on. She ran into Joan Magazzolo and her teacup poodle Lucy, who was dressed in a little pink coat. Magazzolo told Orman she spends $500 a year on clothes for Lucy -- even though she's already in credit card debt.
"Can we make a pact? Let's just make a pact. That from this day forward you are going to say 'Denied,'" Orman said, referencing the popular "Can I Afford It?" segment from her TV show.
"Lucy, we have to have a talk," she said to Magazzolo's poodle. "Mama loves you so much she's not going to be buying any more clothes."
3. Avoid promotions.
One of Orman's major pet peeves is promotions. She spoke to one woman in the mall who spent $50 at Clinique -- only because they were offering two free gifts with a purchase.
"Here is the main message: When do you buy what you need versus what you can afford?" she said. "If we just turned into a society that buys what we need, regardless of what we can afford. ... We will get on the right path and give ourselves the greatest gift of all -- the gift of financial independence."
It all goes back to her money mantra for consumers: spend responsibly, shop wisely.
4. Sometimes you can afford it.
Orman tells hesitant shoppers that sometimes you can afford it. Summer Rodriguez, a college senior, who's graduating next month, told Orman she needs a dress.
"I'm out in the mall looking for a dress for graduation, and it's so hard to come here and not go crazy and take my credit card and just buy stuff," Rodriguez told Orman. "I do need a dress for graduation. I do need shoes."
Rodriguez told Orman that her only dress is knit -- not formal enough for the event. Orman urged Rodriguez to stay focused on what she needs, but ultimately to make a purchase.
"If she wants to give herself a gift .. .this is a big thing for her," Orman told us, before turning back to Rodriguez. "We're not buying jewelry. We need shoes and we need a dress. So as you walk through, here's your financial mantra: We'll try it together, here. Just keep trying this: Look at the windows and you're gonna say, 'Do I need that? Or do I want that?'"
"So you know what Suze Orman would say to you? She is 'Approved!' Girlfriend, have a good time."And with Orman's blessing, Rodriguez left to get herself a gift.
Walking around the mall, Orman was in her element -- dispensing financial advice to anyone and everyone.
Tom Shirley, an unemployed construction manager who's been working through the Obama administration's "Making Home Affordable" program, stopped by for some free advice on how to keep his house. He told Orman that to provide for his wife, he's living off unemployment benefits and his 401(k).
Orman reprimanded him for dipping into his retirement plan so early.
"You may have to claim bankruptcy, and in the meantime, you're taking money out of 401(k) to pay off bills that you may end up not being able to fix ... 401(k) money is protected against bankruptcy. You are not to take another penny out of 401(k). ... Your 401(k) is your future, not your present," Orman told him.
Orman's Cost-Cutting Measures for Homeowner
After telling him to think outside his comfort zone and get a job -- any job -- Orman also suggested some cost-cutting measures that may not occur to people.
"If [your] house is worth less than [your] mortgage, contact the property tax division and see if you can get an adjustment [on your property tax], and contact the insurance people, to raise your deductibles," she said.
She told him he might be over-insuring the house if it's now worth less, and he may be paying too much in property tax, based on the previous value of the house.
"I feel good. I'm going to look for a job," Shirley told us after the free consultation. He said he didn't realize he could modify his property tax and insurance, based on the home's current value. "That's good advice," he said.
Next up was Ira. His question was almost guaranteed to generate a patented "Suze Smackdown."
The recently-engaged 59-year-old asked if he should give in to his finance's request for her $50,000 dream wedding. After living together for 20 years, the two have been engaged for a few months, but Ira said he was hesitant.
"My question is, is that I really would prefer a small intimate wedding and she wants this big fairy-tale wedding and I know that big fairy-tale weddings are extremely costly," Ira said, estimating that the wedding his fiancee wants would cost between $50,000 and $60,000. "Because she's telling me that everybody wants to see her get married."
Orman pounced. "Does that make you question your decision to marry her?" she asked.
"It does," he said. "It's affecting our relationship and now we're talking about not getting married."
"Listen very closely now," she told him. "That is an indication you need to think about this."
"I don't believe in wasting 50k," he said.
"I'm right there with you," Orman added.
But will Ira's finance listen to Suze's advice?
"I have no idea," he said. "We shall see."
Ira said that Orman's gift this season was about financial responsibility.
"Suze's gift was that she confirmed everything that we were saying. But my fiance is saying that I'm being cheap. And I don't think it has anything to do with being cheap. It has to do with being financially responsible," Ira said.
Orman Takes Pulse of Consumer Demand, Trends
Are people being financially responsible this season? Has the recession affected holiday spending? Roaming the mall, Orman was also on the prowl, taking the pulse of consumer demand.
"[Shoppers] sound more realistic, and here's the great thing: They don't sound as embarrassed to be in the situation that they are in," she said. "You know before a while ago maybe you weren't doing well, but you didn't tell anybody that you weren't doing well, because your next door neighbor looked like they were doing great. ...Then the truth comes out where nobody is doing great, and nobody feels good and everybody has lost money, and everyone is under water and then all of a sudden there's almost pride to be able to say now: 'Yeah, I am in debt!' 'Yeah, I don't have any money, I'm just like everybody now!' It's fascinating they are not hiding."
She said she thinks families who know money is tight aren't coming to the mall.
"Some families, they can't feed their families, they can't pay their payments. So they don't tempt themselves by coming to the mall to spend money they don't have anymore.
"Those that are coming, for whatever reason, maybe they cut back over the past year, maybe they saved money, maybe they are out of credit card debt. And they are spending money in a responsible way," Orman said, noting a trend this season.
Vicki Randolph drove three hours with her sister Melanie to get Orman's advice during the roughest time of her life.
Randolph lost her job in February and recently separated from her husband.
"What's the greatest gift you could give yourself?" Orman asked.
"Peace ... a job," Randolph said.
"A job would give you security, independence, a gift to you -- then you don't need a husband to support you anymore," Orman told her, taking her hands. "[This] holiday season give yourself the gift of independence."
And that, Orman said, is the greatest gift this holiday season.
"The gift of independence," Orman said, "of knowing who you are regardless of what you have around you, defining the things around you, versus letting them define you."