Seated in a child's plastic chair, Suze Orman is showing some kids in her Oakland Hills, Calif., neighborhood how to turn lemons into liquid assets. Sipping from a complimentary glass of the lemonade they're selling, the 47-year-old financial guru suggests a price hike—from 10 to 25 cents a cup—to boost lackluster profits. So how come Orman doesn't have to pay, a passerby asks. "I'm giving them financial advice," she explains with a nod toward her newest disciples.

Orman seems to be giving financial advice to everyone. Her 1997 book The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom has 1.9 million copies in print and, boosted by Orman's appearances on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to QVC, spent nearly a year as the country's bestselling advice book. Its weekly sales were topped by those of her latest how-to tome, The Courage to Be Rich, which she and a collaborator cranked out in two months last year.

Orman's message sounds New Age ("When you are powerful, money is attracted to you; it responds just like a person") crossed with Investing for Dummies (Look through your house for spare change, she advises readers). "Her personality has a lot to do with her success," Consumer's Digest editor John Wasik says of Orman. "Whether you're talking to her about finances or your garden, she has this enormous energy."

And a few welts. A recent Forbes article attacked the claim on 9 Steps' video jacket that she had 18 years experience with Wall Street firms; she has had just seven, (Orman blames the error on her publisher.) And though she has gotten rich, she lives alone in the same one-bedroom, one-story Oakland Hills home she bought 23 years ago, seldom dates and complains that she doesn't "have time to see my friends anymore."

As the youngest of three children whose parents owned a Chicago boardinghouse, Orman fixated on money early. After her parents lost the house in a liability suit, mother Ann, now 84, took work as a legal secretary, and Orman's late father, Morris, opened a small deli, only to see it burn down some 10 years later. Orman, then 13, watched as her frantic father dashed back into the flames to retrieve the store's cash register because "it was all the money we had," she says. "When he dropped the register, everything came with it—his shirt, the skin on his arms. That's when I learned money was more important than life." (Her dad survived the fire with third-degree burns on his arms and chest.)

At 22, armed with a degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Orman moved to Berkeley, Calif., and began working as a waitress. Soon she had talked her way into a stockbroker's job at Merrill Lynch, which, she says, was eager to recruit women. As a broker, she consulted a crystal for guidance on her trades, signed up truck drivers and waitresses as clients and took treks to India on her vacations. "Suze's attitude was geared toward the common man," says her Merrill coworker Cliford Citrano. "We thought she was nuts."

In 1987, Orman launched her own investment firm. Despite a fast start, the business went belly-up after less than six months. "I didn't have a penny left," she says, "and I didn't have the courage to tell people what had happened."

Within three years, though, she had won back most of her old clients and was soon earning more than ever. Then, at a party in 1994, she bumped into a literary agent and within a year published her first book, You've Earned It, Don't Lose It.

With three books in the bank, Orman shows no signs of slowing. Even now, squeezed into that tiny chair on the streets of Oakland Hills, she can't seem to stop. While three of the young entrepreneurs tend their lemonade sales, Orman pulls a fourth aside—and quietly advises him to open a savings account.

Erik Meers
Ulrica Wihlborg in Oakland Hills

  • Contributors:
  • Ulrica Wihlborg.