Sad Money

The best personal finance show.

Troy from New York on the line. Thanks for taking my call. Here’s the question: With the vicious downturn in the economy, there’s been an upswing in personal-finance TV. Should we be bullish or bearish about shows in which the public phones in to wheeze and vent and plead for counsel? Buy, hold, or sell?

On Saturday, the Fox Business Network introduced Your Questions, Your Money Live (10 a.m. ET), a four-hour program that takes queries—”Should my 77-year-old mom do a reverse mortgage?”—in between drive-by policy evaluations and tributes to entrepreneurial gumption. The host, Dagen McDowell, and her panelists sit in a circular space sunk into the floor of the studio, nesting on curved, red sofas heaped with throw pillows, which is to say that the set of Your Questions, Your Money has an air of Your Wife, My Swing Party. Or it would with the addition of a shag rug and the removal of the numerous video screens on which white and orange blobs creep across something abstractly Neoclassical. The images are most explicable as a reflection of viewers’ fantasies about a river of lava overrunning the Treasury Building.

Sometimes, as when the talking heads went off on tangents about the Glass-Steagall Act, the show proved too smart for its own good. At other points, it was too dumb for anyone’s. When a caller announced a crackpot plan to load up on Ford stock, one expert retorted, “I don’t like to make bets on stocks unless I know something special about what’s going on inside of that company,” a strategy Ivan Boesky used with decidedly mixed results. For that matter, Fox Business could do its part for unemployment figures by hiring someone to manage the folks who screen the calls. This might help weed out the likes of Jean from Montana, who angrily conflated the estate tax and eminent domain, and Shawn from Florida, who begged to know why stimulus-package money didn’t go directly to home-electronics consumers. (Down in the little pleasure pit, the panelists managed to recast the latter query as “How do TARP funds help small businesses?”) McDowell presided with a commanding smile and a voice like Virginia sweet tea. Her own taste in soft drinks is rather fashionable. While interviewing the co-creator of Honest Tea, she spluttered, “I actually have a bottle of it open in my hand!”

Contrast McDowell’s rush-week grin with the D&D-club countenance of Clark Howard, an Atlanta-based radio veteran whose Clark Howard Show popped up on the weekend schedule of HLN (formerly CNN Headline News) in January. Howard complements a great face for radio with a wonderful larynx for print. “I have this whiny nasally voice,” he recently told his hometown paper, displaying the self-knowledge that has enabled him to convert his dweebiness into a successful shtick. “Today’s economy can make you feel like a 98-pound weakling,” he said in an intro last week, standing there with his shapeless polo shirt tucked into his colorless khakis. If you pay attention to Lewis Skolnick here, he’ll mold you into a Charles Atlas of the checkbook: “You’re going to be in charge!” He brought empowerment to what sounded like sensible advice about private mortgage insurance, trustee-to-trustee rollovers, LED light bulbs, and the best way to exchange currency for a trip to Wales, though he never did address the matter of why you’d want to go to Wales in the first place.

After a 10-month hiatus, On the Money (CNBC, weeknights at 10 p.m. ET) returned in August with the urgently chipper Carmen Wong Ulrich as its host. The show’s recent focus on investment scams, consumer rip-offs, and dastardly corporate behavior provides many an incongruous context for her high-decibel cheer. “Have you been a victim of fraud?” she twinkled this week. “We wanna hear about it!” It would be interesting if the pundits who gather at Ulrich’s curvilinear desk were issued pompoms. When a naturopathic doctor with a slumping practice called in to ask whether he should liquidate his IRA to pay off his mortgage, they first told him to quit that noise, then addressed the downtrodden tone in his voice: “As your attitude plummets, you’re screwed.” They told people who’d lost their life savings to crooks to seize their victimhood as a chance to educate others. All the while, the phrases live responsibly and protect yourself flipped around at the bottom of the screen. What if every show on television adopted the same graphic? How would it affect the texture of Rock of Love Bus With Bret Michaels?

Suze Orman
Jim Cramer 

And what is there left to say about Ulrich’s CNBC colleagues in the call-in game? Saturday Night Live’s Kristin Wiig has definitively captured the ochre-tinged host of The Suze Orman Show (Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET) in all her grating superiority and alien mannerisms, and the show’s Web site excerpts the disgracefully compelling “Can I Afford It?” segments so that pleasure-seekers, unmolested by Orman’s other huffings, can experience the game-show tingle of waiting for her to endorse or scorn a caller’s material desires. On Mad Money (weekdays at 6 p.m. ET), Jim Cramer continues apace as the hardest-working man in business-show show business. (“Irrepressibly gratuitous” is how he correctly identifies his arm-waving, ear-splitting, stock-picking side-show act in the current Esquire.) Even in these times of distress, almost every caller still salutes Cramer with a bellowed “boo-yah!,” though Warren in Florida surely spoke for many last Monday in qualifying his as “a very scared and reluctant boo-yah!” Cramer has frequently screamed about food-related stocks this week. Tupperware is a natural buy in a time of increased home cooking, of course, and, as a side benefit, selecting that theme has allowed him to waggle crab legs and breadsticks at the Steadicam, giving a rest to a favorite recent prop, a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, 1929.

The antithesis of Jim Cramer, perhaps the antidote to Jim Cramer, is The Dave Ramsey Show (Fox Business, weekdays at 8 p.m. ET), which remains the most remarkable program on any business-news channel. Where Orman’s viewers call in seeking permission to buy Kate Spade pumps, Ramsey’s are often seeking a firm hand to guide them out of debt, which they possibly accrued in co-signing for an ex-boyfriend’s car loan. Where some shows analyze, or at least natter about, the economic-stimulus plan, Ramsey does not give a fig about it, telling one viewer, “I think it’s funny and it’s sad that you wait on government to fix anything in your life.” He sells principles, as opposed to addressing problems ad hoc, and in doing so, he often acts as an on-screen grief counselor, a platitude-free positive-thinking coach, and an extremely likable dispenser of tough love. Ramsey’s core idea—which used to look iconoclastic but now just seems like the common sense that it is—is to avoid debt at all costs. He preaches it in a humble, down-home, no-frills way that leaves his audience owing him plenty.