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Open letter to Oprah and Suze Orman

Dear Oprah and Suze,

While normally I am a fan of both of you ladies, I happened to catch the tail end of the Oprah show yesterday (10/22/08) and was appalled by what I saw and heard counseled.


A mother, Jean, was asking for advice. Her 5th grader wanted to go on a school trip to Costa Rica. At 11 years old, this boy has been studying Spanish for a while and is almost bilingual. He has been looking forward to this special 5th grade trip for years. It cost about $2200.

The problem? The mother was carrying $20,000 in debt on her credit cards.

Suze Orman
Suze Orman

Suze Orman said, No way you can pay for that trip. He simply cannot go.

The mother knew her son would be dreadfully disappointed if he couldn’t go. She talked about the one-time educational opportunity of this particular trip.

Suze didn’t budge an inch. Tell him you simply can’t afford it, she counseled without empathy. Tell him he can’t go this year, but he’ll be able to go another year.

Oprah was even firmer. If you let him go now, when he knows you can’t afford it, you’ll be setting a bad example for him about spending money you do not have.

My heart went out to that poor boy who would be so heartbroken. Mostly, though, I was outraged that Oprah and Suze didn’t offer any other alternatives to the mother. It was only the most radical and depressing solution: There’s no way he can go on that trip because you can’t afford it.

Here’s something I wish I would have heard instead: make it a project to earn the money to pay for the trip of a lifetime. Here are some ideas:

1. Get a paper route. I knew a large family that brought in almost half their income from paper routes that everyone participated in together before going off to school and work. At 4am, even the littlest ones would be in the garage, rolling and stuffing papers for the bigger kids to deliver by foot, bike, and car. All the money earned went toward the communal family coffers, but this family could put it aside to pay for his trip.

2. In my neighborhood, an elementary school kid started up a business where kids hang flyers from local merchants on doors throughout the neighborhood. He began by doing it all himself and grew to hire other kids to help deliver. It’s a win-win for the kids and the local merchants. And for the neighborhood, too, as the flyers often contain coupons to encourage people to support local businesses.

3. When I was 16, I decided I wanted to go to South America and volunteer with a group called Amigos de las Americas. It required 6 months of training and fundraising efforts so that the out-of-pocket expenses per volunteer would be significantly less than if we were each paying our own way.

Some of the fundraising efforts we did included running a local bingo parlor on Sunday mornings (each family rotated through this responsibility), selling frozen pizzas (after the sales were taken, we formed an assembly line to assemble and shrink-wrap each pizza, which was delivered fresh to your freezer), and selling handmade blankets (ours were made out of old ski hats from various ski areas… perfect for a Colorado rec room!).

What if the parents of this boy organized a class fundraiser to help reduce the out-of-pocket costs for all of the families? I’d do that in a second if it meant that a) I wouldn’t have to disappoint my kid, and b) he would learn some valuable things in the process. Things like working to earn toward a goal. It’s amazing, too, how a common effort like this can pull a family and community together. By the time these kids went on their trip, they would have experienced some serious team-building exercises together. Even if there wasn’t enough time to do this beforehand, the parents could do a short-term loan that would be repaid upon completion of the fundraising effort.

But most of all, advice like this could have empowered the mother and the son, instead of sending them to the depths of dispair and hopelessness.

It could have instead been an opportunity to offer hope and creative ideas to solve the problem. We could all use a little bit of hope right about now, I think.

Posted in: Kids, Multiple Sclerosis

12 Comments on “Open letter to Oprah and Suze Orman

  1. There are two different things going on here: the mother has incredible, idiotic credit card debt, and an 11-year-old boy wants $2200 to go on a trip out of the country.

    First problem: Give the mother tips on how to lower and ultimately get rid of credit card debt by doing such things as telling her kids “no,” we can’t afford this, that, or a $2200 trip.

    Second problem: We’re not talking about a fifth grader going to Washington on a school safety patrol trip. We’re talking going OUT OF THE COUNTRY. In my book, he’s too young for a trip like that without his parents whether the mother has the money or not.

  2. Exciting document and a single which should really be far more broadly regarded about in my watch. Your degree of detail is excellent as well as clarity of writing is exceptional. I have bookmarked it to suit your needs in order that other people will undoubtedly be capable to see what you need to say.

  3. This is a very interesting dilemma for parents – and their kids. What you say or do at this point with the child will have a lasting impact on the child. I thought your ideas were wonderful for the parents. But, most of all, I really appreciated your approach to a painful experience for both the parents and the child. Finding solutions for a difficult problem is a far better approach to solving problems than getting into a black and white approach- which feels punitive, and, really, not very smart nor adaptive.
    Susan Rutherford (psychologist)
    Susan Rutherford

  4. Nicely put, Ted. I think that’s what I was trying to say originally, that the 11-year old shouldn’t be held responsible for clearing his parents’ debt. And with a little creativity, the money for the trip could be raised or earned so that it would not add to the parents’ debt load.

  5. Excellent post and a great conversation starter. The comments so far surprise me in a way that made me think a lot more about the issues at hand. The reaction from Suze Orman and most of your commenters fall into the category in my mind of a biblical quote: Leviticus 26:39 Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away. The boy is a child and is not responsible for the sins of his father (mother). The boy is not a soldier in this fight, he is a bystander, an innocent victim. He, as each of us will only be this age for this one moment and each moment wasted is one never recoverable to invest in the next moment. Don’t wast anything needlessly.

    We have many separate issues and when you break it down you can see that there are separate solutions to them. The mother’s debit is unfortunate but let that be it’s own problem, it is something that the 11 year old son has nothing to do with other than suffering under the unfortunate weight of worry and concern in the family home. Remember, there are grownup issues and childhood issues, and proper parenting keeps them apart. Parents in this era seem to rely on their children as confidants and pals instead of sucking-it-up and being proper adults and working through adult situations on their own.

    If, 1) the trip is properly planned and executed it would be nothing but a benefit to the boy as a part of his development as a well rounded citizen, 2) the boy is passionate enough about the trip to arrange in one way or another to fund it, that is another benefit to a boy learning responsibility and the rewarding feeling of accomplishment and self direction as he grows into a responsible man and citizen, and 3) maybe after a life altering trip to a nation where the per capita income is $5800 this boy can come home and offer some insight to his family about conservation, minimization, and true family values held in the heart and not in the marketplace, then this young citizen just may be the guiding force to inspire his mother’s accent out of the hole of debit that she has fallen into. Addition to the family debit – $0.00, contribution to the shaping of a strong man in a rapidly changing world – priceless.

    Be well.

  6. While of course it’s important to pay down debt, if the mother is following financial gurus like Suze Orman, she is likely already on a plan to pay down the debt each month.

    If she’s working on paying down the debt, why should everyone have to live like paupers during the time it takes to repay? If the boy can earn the money and it doesn’t infringe on the family’s regular budget, then it just seems mean-spirited to withhold it from him.

    I totally agree with Elizabeth Boyle’s comment above: at 11 or 12 kids are old enough to share the work load by helping with specific tasks. By the time I was that age, I was babysitting regularly for neighborhood families.

    But, if there is a way to gather the money needed and the boy was willing to pitch in and contribute, I don’t see why he couldn’t go.

    As for his age, I would have to evaluate that based on the child and the itinerary and the chaperones. While his experience would certainly be different than that of a 22-year old, I am a strong believer that travel abroad breeds tolerance, compassion, and respect for those different than we are.

    I was 8 when I first lived abroad, and I do remember it pretty clearly. What I know for sure is that is affected the trajectory of the rest of my life and the decisions I’ve made.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  7. I’m with Suze and Oprah. This is ridiculous and why our country is in the economic shape is in because no one is practicing restraint or teaching it to their children. That debt should be a family responsibility to remove. ASAP, with everyone pitching in.

    I had this talk with a writer friend the other day and she is struggling to pay her bills and then went through her expenses and her largest was for her assistant. And when she outlined what the assistant was doing, putting together mailings, sticking labels on postcards, and such, I was shocked. She was paying someone $25 an hour to do this when she has two kids 12 and 10, who could do this just as easily. I grew up on a farm, and us kids worked and contributed–and it was the norm. And when I suggested she use her kids, she looked at me as if I had suggested using them for drug company experiments. I don’t get it, but they are just sitting there watching TV, they can add sticking labels to their experience without any adverse side affects.

    And I don’t know why suddenly every kid under 18 has to have some hugely expensive trip to a foreign country or they will some how be left behind. I never got to travel like that, until I was over 18, I worked and saved my own money and paid for it myself. Besides, if I had gone on that trip at 11 it would have been a waste of money–I wouldn’t have appreciated the sights and people as I did at 22.

  8. I think there are two challenges here
    (1) mom’s credit card debt
    (2) the boy ‘s trip
    The kid is likely to loose some opportunities for enlightenment at a young age, because “we want to teach him a lesson for the future”. Your environment shapes your thinking. This trip can help the kid built better perceptions of the world and to his advantage he already knows spanish. The challenge for mum is to raise say $3000, $2000 for the kid and $1000 to show the bank that she is doing something about her challenges. if the kid fails to go costa rica it will add to her depression. She needs to devise ways to raise the money and let the kid go, if it fails its ok but she would have tried to groom one of the future leaders of America.

  9. I’m with Suze on this one also. If the family wants to get creative with raising money it should be used to pay off that debt first. My guess is that $20K is not just adult stuff but probably also money spent on kids based on this woman even asking if she can afford to send her kid.

    Great idea to suggest to get creative to earn some more money but I think that money should be used to pay down the existing debt so when opportunities come up in the future it can be afforded.

    I also don’t think a trip at age 11 is a once in a life time opportunity. There are tons (if not unlimited) such opportunities for kids out there. Missing this one is not that big of a deal – the kid can do something later when the family gets it’s act together. Plus what a great learning opportunity for the kid – lesson – we don’t buy what we can’t afford.

    As to Jill’s comment – I send my kids off on all sorts of great adventures without me as they attend an expeditionary learning school. I’d have no problem sending my kid on a trip like this if it fit into my budget. They spent 5 months last year in Europe with out me (at ages 11 and 15).

  10. I’ve been thinking alot about this today, since reading your post. A few other thing came to mind. I don’t think Suze is educated in families or children, and she does not have any of her own…so there is no on the job training either. So perhaps that is why she did not try to help the woman with ideas on how her son could earn money. I think she just deals with adult money, not children. Also, I would not want a child of mine (only age 11) going that far away, on that expensive of a trip without me. Would you?

  11. Hi Jill! I’m thrilled, as always, to hear divergent views. Please never hesitate to disagree with something I say — how could I ever hate a reader of my blog! 🙂

    Personally, I’ve never responded well to the kind of advice that puts things in black and white, right or wrong. As a coach myself, I see my job as helping the client see problems in a new light so that new answers can appear. I wanted to see this happen here.

  12. I hope you don’t hate me for this Elizabeth…because I really do LOVE your blog and have respect for you….however I have to agree with Suze on this one. As hard as it is to say no to her son, they CAN’T afford this trip. We are a nation that sees credit as money. It’s not, and we need to start teaching our children that credit is not money. I do agree with you however, that Suze, the money expert and all, should have given some constructive advice on how this boy could eventually earn a trip such as this. But I also think Suze is trying to get us all back on track, that we simply cannot any longer buy things we cannot afford.

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