By Mark Dagostino
February 16, 2009 12:00 PM

Suze Orman has an apartment at the Plaza. Yes, that Plaza—the majestic hotel at the foot of Central Park and one of the crown jewels of Manhattan real estate. But TV’s preacher of the pocketbook isn’t throwing away money on ostentatious opulence. “Please!” Orman, 57, says as she pulls her feet up onto the sofa in her simple one-bedroom (complete with a fold-away Murphy bed for guests). “We have the tiniest little apartment. The maintenance and property taxes are reasonable. And I know I will always, always be able to sell this.”

After writing seven consecutive bestsellers, appearing everywhere from Oprah to QVC and anchoring her cable TV show—one of CNBC’s top-rated programs—on Saturday nights for the last eight years, Suze Orman might have millions to burn. But the compulsive saver says her bottom line has never changed: “I’m protecting the money.”

Until she reached her 30s, Orman had precious little to protect. Born and raised with two older brothers on Chicago’s gritty South Side, her father, Morrey, drove her to school in a chicken truck. “I would have him drop me off a block away so I could air out,” she says. As a young girl, Orman joined her whole family at work in her father’s barbecue chicken shop and deli. Unfortunately the businesses never generated much in the way of income. Still, says Orman, “he never gave up.” Orman used that same work ethic to pay her way through the University of Illinois while holding down three jobs. There, as she majored in social work, she began living openly as a lesbian. “I was never closeted,” she says of her sexual orientation. “I knew who I was from a very young age.” In 2001 she met brand manager Kathy Travis at a party—”I didn’t know who she was!” Travis, 56, says with a laugh—and today they share homes in New York, Florida and San Francisco. In addition to being her life partner, Travis now oversees Orman’s career.

But Orman wasn’t always a success. In the early 1970s she was a waitress at the Buttercup Bakery in Berkeley, Calif. “It was one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had in my life,” she says. When a few of her favorite customers pooled $50,000 in 1980 to help Orman open her own restaurant, she entrusted it to a financial adviser who lost it all in bad investments. Furious—and determined to pay back her customers—Orman devoured the Wall Street Journal and learned the ins and outs of the financial markets, eventually landing a job as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. “If I hadn’t lost the money that everybody gave me, I very well would still be a waitress today,” Orman says.

Instead, she opened her own financial firm and in 1995, as a way to impress her clients, wrote a book: You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It, which was a surprise success. Her second book led to TV appearances, and now Orman’s brand of straight talk has become so legendary that she is regularly spoofed on Saturday Night Live. But the current state of the economy is no laughing matter. “It’s really, really, really bad,” says Orman. And before it gets better—think 2015, she says—”It’s going to get a lot worse.” That is why Orman is on a mission: “If I can tell you the truth, then just maybe you will know the actions to take for your own good, people!” she says. “My job is to be the financial truth crusader. It’s time to get honest. Hope for the best. But plan for the worst.”