Oprah Asks A Great Question; What Can You Live Without?

By Paul Michael. Last updated 3 March 2009. 27 comments
Photo: Alan Light

My wife brought this to my attention. I’m not an avid Oprah viewer, but usually when I tune in I hear good advice. And with the help of financial guru Suze Orman, she’s asking families all across America one simple question; what can you live without?

At first, it seems like a daunting task.

Don’t go out to eat.
Don’t use your credit cards.
Don’t do any shopping for a week.

Surely things will come around that require cash, like you run out of milk or your car needs gas?

Well, this is all part of the experiment. Planning and budgeting is everything, and is something few families do well. I’m guilty of it myself. I’ll pop to the store for milk and come home with a bag of groceries. And yet, when I was a young kid I remember the pantry slowly getting empty as grocery day approached. My folks bought a week’s worth of shopping and lived off it. No need to do a midweek shop. We had what we needed and nothing more. Maybe this is something we should bring back?

Credit Cards, or the lack of them, also play a role in the Oprah plan. Basically, if you have to put anything on a credit card, you can’t afford it. Sure, I know some people spend on an Amex to collect miles and then pay it off every month, but we’re talking about the average, American credit-card user.

When it comes down to it, if you’re putting the new stove or sofa on a credit card (or even worse, a store credit card) then you really shouldn’t be buying that item at all. Remember, back in the day people used to do this crazy thing called “saving.” Today, we’re all about instant gratification. Buy now, pay later. And by the time we’re finished paying something off, it’s time to get a new one. The cycle never ends. 

Another aspect of Oprah’s experiment is to simplify your life. In a recent episode, a woman was asked to put everything from her closet into storage that she hadn’t used in two months. It was amazing to see just how much she boxed up. This is another valuable lesson. We’re a bunch of pack rats. We hoard and store and are afraid to let go of anything. We’d rather have a garage or basement full of clutter and junk than part with something we bought 10 years ago and haven’t used in the last nine years. Simplify, and life can become so much easier.

The same woman also went through her fridge and threw away pounds and pounds of old, out-of-date food. Her family does the big shop every week, but they eat out, or eat fast food, almost every night. So that food which they buy with good intentions is basically cash in the trash. From expensive bagged salads to meats and vegetables, it was so sad to see so much food go straight into the garbage can.

Again, this is all about planning and budgeting. If you MUST eat out once a week, don’t go buying food that won’t get eaten. And keep your fridge in order. It’s so easy to push the good food to the back of the fridge with some leftovers from another meal. You forget about it until that ominous smell appears, giving everything the aroma of rotting nastiness. 

Check out more at Oprah.com and perhaps tonight you can sit down with your own family and make a pledge to live without the things you don’t really need. Maybe you’ll discover that living without actually brings you a lot more in return.

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Guest's picture

Ok so if everyone does this, how will business be affected. If no restaurants have any patrons for a week, how many will go out of business and therefore have to lay off employees?

Guest's picture

How is business affected now?! They are hurting because people are not only paying their restaurant bill but the 15-29% credit card interest in that bill. And so dining out less.

The best thing for business is for customers to be solvent and a robust healthy economy without exorbitant fees to credit cards.

Oh, and I'm a restaurateur :)

Guest's picture

shut up you stupid retard

Guest's picture

I never have more than $10 or so in cash on me at any one time, and everything that I buy over a dollar or so goes on a credit card (I get cash back from the card, which is why I use it). At the end of the month the card gets paid off in full - every month, no exceptions (and I have been doing this for over 4 years now). If I can't afford something it doesn't go on the card. There is nothing wrong with using a credit card as part of your budgeting, you just have to be responsible and pay it off. I got almost $400 back last year from my credit card company - that's free money, and I would have had $0 back if I paid cash for everything. Using a credit card also gives me protection when I buy something, and allows me the option of a chargeback if a company screws me (like the time I paid for a 3-month pool membership and the facility closed without warning 2 weeks later....if I had paid cash I wouldn't have seen a penny back). Credit cards aren't the problem - irresponsible people are the problem.

Guest's picture

I don't think this is claiming that credit cards are bad in themselves, but rather that the use of a credit card is frequently associated with unnecessary purchases and that one should think twice about buying these sorts of things.

So instead than calling some people "irresponsible", try to suggest rules of thumb (such as this one) that will help them intuitively make more responsible choices.

Guest's picture

I agree with Tyg that credit cards can be useful and offer you some protection. If the question was what can yo u live without for a week, then if things like entertainment or other items were included in a budget then going to a restaurant or meeting a friend for coffee once a week or wouldn't break someone's budget.

Oprah's challenge was to get people to simplify their lives and live more simply. Attainable goals. Over spending is a not a sustainable way of life for anyone.

Guest's picture

I've worked to cut back on shopping so much. We cleaned out our garage and closets to get rid of stuff we don't use or need. It made me realize how much I shopped for entertainment. I would go shopping just to get out of the house or for something fun to do. And I would bring stuff home that would just get packed into closets and forgotten.

Now when I'm bored I resist the urge to go shopping. I've started cooking and baking more instead. And that change has helped our budget tremendously.

Guest's picture

Using a credit card for every purchase ultimately adds to the cost of the item because the store owner has to cover the added on percentage that our using the card costs them. I try to pay cash at the mom and pop stores so they get to keep more, and can stay in business.

Guest's picture

Oh, and the other way to pose the question, is what do we really need? Probably a lot less than we feel we can't live without.

Guest's picture

Oh come on... what if Oprah, lived on $150,000 a year and gave everything else away? THAT would not only make a massive difference but also set an example.

And Suze Orman... spends like $500,000 a year chartering private jets... what if she gave up private flying for a year and didn't buy any new clothing... to set an example. That would be remarkable and credible.

Guys... this is just an example of the elite trying to focus us "living with less" while they live with more. Don't you find the timing odd? The stock market is tanking while Obama is spending. Our savings are going down the drain while O's friend Oprah is preaching "doing with less." He wants to create socialism which requires taking from some to give to others. Don't you see the connection?

Man, we let ourselves get duped so easy. Wakeup America. The elite are the elite, republican or democrat. They have their self interests in mind, not yours. W was the oil man, Obama wants power ("change") and to create history... for himself, for his ego. He isn't in it for the regular guy. His wife made $250k/year as a hosptial administrator... so, why is healthcare so expensive? Think for yourself America.

I love WiseBread, but please... let's be honest and intelligent not accepting of those who make tons of money feeding off our insecurities... giving us "hope" that never materializes into real self-actualization, instead, just leads us to the need for more hope.

I'm sure some of this notion of cutting back is good, but I look at where it comes from and feel insulted. Hope you do too.

Guest's picture

Glad someone said it... i actually trolled the comments to make sure a response like this was there. I Salute you!

It is shockingly hypocritical for Oprah Winfrey to suggest "cutting back" on consumables. Its nice to preach it when you don't have to participate. Real leaders lead by example.

Guest's picture

I found it very useful to use two basic categories in my budget: need / want. I need housing. Cable tv is optional. I need to pay the gas and electric. Books are a want. (And I love books--but the library is free.) Makes it pretty obvious how much you could live without if you had to do so and helps you create a realistic budget for an emergency fund (assuming that if you were tapping in to an emergency fund you wouldn't be spending money on your wants).

Guest's picture

Interesting experiment/challenge I've been doing the last few weeks - trying to use whatever's in the pantry/fridge to make meals vs. stopping in the grocery every time the impulse to make something that I don't have ingredients for crops up. It's surprising how many meals can be made using what's already in the kitchen - and not grotesque stuff either. One bonus - the vegetables and fruit are actually getting eaten instead of making their usual trip to the compost bin after the obligatory 6-week detention in the fridge.

Still been to the market a few times, but probably only purchased a quarter of what I normally would have. Not that saving money is what's driving this, more like the challenge of coming up with something tasty with a limited set of ingredients. Or maybe it was that chicken I found in my freezer marked 'Best if used by 10/21/2005" that prompted this... :)

From a general personal-finance perspective, it's been really interesting to note how frequently the "I need to go to the store" or "I want this, therefore I should have it today" thoughts/impulses pop up. And people would not describe me as an instant-gratification kind of person, in fact, pretty much the exact opposite.

Guest's picture

I am so sick of Oprah telling me how to live my life by cutting back, living with less, blah blah blah!

It is sure easy to say stuff like that when you make that much money and have not a care in the world. But for some who work 40 plus hours per week (I work 60), is it really so awful to get some joy in my life by buying myself something I want, not need.

I would challenge Oprah to live like the average American for even one month. I guaratee that she would be running back to her palace in no time!

Guest's picture

I understand where you are coming from Katrina. FYI Oprah grew up dirt poor and it is a result of many choices she made that landed her where she is today. I agree that a billionaire is not the best spokesperson to tell us how regular folks like us should live, but we all make choices that affect our financial position every day. I work in retail, (I don't make a lot of money) and a woman came in and wanted to buy a roll of Tums. She dug around in her brand new Coach purse for about 2 minutes and said she must have forgot her wallet at home. She left to go scrounge around in her car for some change and still came up short of the $1.18 for the roll of Tums. It is all about choices we make. And the hardest part for a lot of people to grasp is that you don't need a million dollars to live a financially secure and perfectly happy life.

Guest's picture

I agree that credit cards, themselves, are neither good or bad. It's all about how they are used. I also use my credit cards for just about every purchase. I find it more convenient than cash and I earn airline miles which saves me money on the flights that I regularly take to see my family. I also pay them off each month.

Additionally, credit cards give me some security. My whole family lives in different states and my parents are getting older. If something happens, I know that I can drive to the airport, get on a plane, get to where they are, rent a car and live for a week or two without having to worry about having enough cash to cover all of those expenses. Yeah, it would be crazy expensive to do that with no prior planning and I might not be able to pay off the whole trip at the end of the month (although I probably would). But just knowing that, if I'm needed, I can be with my family in less than 24 hours is a great comfort.

All that said, this is not an excuse to not continue to live frugally, be smart about what you buy, budget wisely and all of that sort of thing. But there's no one right way for everyone to handle money and live wisely. You have to find what works for you and your family. If that ways is Dave Ramsey's way, that's great. If it's the latest thing that Oprah's pushing, wonderful. But, for most people, it's going to be a bit from Dave Ramsey, something from Oprah, a tip from Great Grandmom, that budgetting spreadsheet that you put together in college, etc. And, yeah, you're gonna make mistakes. The key is not to give up. Financial responsibility is a lifelong pursuit just like a lot of things. If you take the long view while keeping an eye on your day to day actions, you're probably going to come out ahead.

Guest's picture

Although I agree it's easy to write off Oprah/Suze's advice as elitist because they don't need to follow it themselves, I think we should acknowledge these women are using their media reach in a generally beneficial way for the general public and not so beneficial to their big-business corporate advertisers. There HAS to be some backlash from their corporate sponsors.

Having been on both sides of the credit card issue, I can attest that not using your credit cards, not eating out, and not shopping for a month while you're weaning yourself off addictive consumeristic behavior is good advice. It's kind of like the "induction" phase of the Atkins of South Beach diet ... the point is to stabilize blood sugar (budget) and reduce sugar (shopping) cravings so you can be successful in your (budgetary) diet. Once you get your blood sugar (shopping impulses) under control, you gradually add items back in until you learn how much you can eat (shop) without gaining weight (debt).

Once you can look at a chocolate cream pie (30% off sale) without wanting it unless you are really hungry (need it), you can start carefully indulging from time to time, within your dietary (budget) restrictions. Credit cards become useful (as previous posters commented) when you use them to collect cash-back rewards and you pay off your debt in full every month. Restaurant meals become a meaningful way to eat good food and spend quality time with family and friends instead of a meaningless junk-food drive-through at a fast food restaurant. You find yourself shopping carefully for a few quality (hopefully American made) items which last a long time and you really enjoy instead of filling your closets with junk.

Oprah and Suze may be wealthy beyond most people's comprehension, but a lot of people trust them and I think overall it's a good thing the media queens are preaching responsibility (even if they're so wealthy they don't have to live it themselves).

Guest's picture

Mo' money, mo' problems!

Guest's picture

is a good idea no matter where it comes from. And if Oprah can encourage people to take stock of their lives and their habits and help inspire them to change, then I don't see what's wrong with it. If you don't like her then don't watch the show. Don't slam her for trying to help ordinary Americans get their acts together.

Guest's picture

Thanks.......best comment yet!!!!
Oprah has opened our eyes to so many things we would have otherwise been blind
too plus she is entertaining and Happy!!!! Gotta Love it.

Paul Michael's picture

of saying that Oprah and Suze Orman need to spend just a fraction of their income and give the rest away. Both of them deserve their success and it's probably worth noting that they are both exceptionally good with their money.

They may have a lot more than you or I, but I guarantee they spend it better. Which is why they're in the position they're in. Remember, both of these ladies rose from nothing to be successful, and when successful people speak, I listen. Take their advice and focus on your own situation. It's a lot easier to say "huh, give me some of their money" but without the skills to use it wisely, you'd waste it anyway.

Look how many lottery winners go broke after a few years. It's about money management, not how much money you have. Some people have a $500k a year salary and are in deep debt because they outspend their income. Others are on $80k a year and have no debt and savings. It's all relative folks. This is no conspiracy theory, it's just simple, good advice from two smart ladies.

Guest's picture

I don't think that the point is that Suze Orman and Oprah don't have to follow their own advice. What keeps the elite the elite is the fact that the rest of us are all in debt and paying massive amounts of interest.

How does Oprah benefit from me not being in debt? The answer to the question is: she doesn't. She doesn't make more money when I stop spending money. She doesn't sell magazines. Her corporate sponsors make less money and can't continue to pay high ad rates. So, ultimately, this advice is the opposite of self-serving.

What is self-serving is the constant barrage of banks sending indebted consumers pre-approved credit apps so that we will continue spending money that we don't have on crap we don't need so that we can pay them back with interest. That's self-serving.

Guest's picture

I have no beef with Oprah, but Suze Orman is nothing but a big con artist. Why anyone would listen to her is beyond me.


"And although one of Suze's mantras is how much she loves stocks—"[S]tocks, in my opinion, are the best investment vehicle for the growth of your money over time"—less than 3 percent of Suze's net worth happens to be invested in them. Instead, she's tucked away the vast majority of those royalties ($32 million-plus, after taxes) into insured, government-backed bonds."

"more disturbing is her ridiculing of people who don't think that financial companies are on their side as "paranoid." These days, if that isn't reason enough to dump her as your financial adviser—or as your friend—how about this whopper: The long bull market, sayeth Suze, was a result of the economy's "remarkable state of balance." All this while income inequality, the federal deficit, the imbalance of trade, foreclosures, defaults, and personal bankruptcies were skyrocketing. At least we know why she didn't see the meltdown coming.

Guest's picture

The entire attitudes towards credit cards is something I've never understood. Maybe its a cultural thing. I am in my 30s now and have never ever ever thought of credit cards as something to use as a form of actual credit. To me, my family, and most people I know they are simply an alternative to cash. I charge most things I buy and always pay off the balance in full each month, it would never even occur to me to not pay off the full balance each month. It's just not the way I was brought up. People say you'll spend more money if you charge things than if you use cash - but that isn't true. It may be true for someone who is weak and stupid but if you have even half a brain you know a dollar is a dollar whether its on your card or you pay in cash. I save over half my income even after taxes and max 401k contributions. I make a pretty average income for people like me - e.g. white-collar professionals, college degree, etc. Nothing crazy high but comfortable even after saving over half of it. I just don't understand how people in my demographic can't have savings, how they find the need to buy things on credit, etc. But that is the case, so many people I know would be categorized as upper-middle class and they have such little in savings. Asian-Americans I know are the only group where it seems virtually all are very smart with their money.

Guest's picture


Stop watching that garbage!

Throw out the TV! REALY!!!

Most of your common sense will return. Your discussion/participation puts you exactly where they (they=any media=bad) want you.

The realm of controversy via the media is nothing but sour.

Guest's picture
Steve in W MA

@ "Or maybe it was that chicken I found in my freezer marked 'Best if used by 10/21/2005" that prompted this... :)"


Personally I don't think think Oprah and Suze should economize, they should spend a lot more, at least that would mean the less well-off would gain more from their fortunes.

Keep in mind that, at their level of wealth, unless they totally go bonkers, it's impossible to deplete their bank balances.

I live on 22,000 per year, plus health insurance. Which is plenty to live on.

Without investigating and doing the math, just the return on their bank accounts and other investments probably comes to 100-1000 (Suze vs Oprah) times that per year. And that's not counting income from their businesses.

Guest's picture

I live without cable TV so I don't have to hear from Oprah or Suze. I used to be a Suze fan but she lost me when she started shilling brand-new cars on TV, her line of debit cards, and her self-improvement pushed on her specials on PBS stations.