Gail Vaz-Oxlade, host of ‘Til Debt Do Us Part
Canadians have been inundated with statistics and anecdotes to illustrate how many of us are not only failing to save money; but in our haste to stock up on the best that life can offer, have also fallen into serious debt trouble.
Gail Vaz-Oxlade has seen the faces behind those statistics. The self-taught financial expert literally arrives at the front door to put the financial house of desperate couples in order as host of a hit show Til Debt Do Us Part, which attracts a wide Canadian audience on Slice Television, and is also shown in 26 countries.
“For the most part, these people are desperate. Nobody out there will help them,” says Vaz-Oxlade, a 47-year-old married mother of a 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, who has newfound fame as a result of the show.
“After the first season was on the air, someone would always recognize me,” says Vaz-Oxlade, who recalls shopping with her daughter Alex for dance shoes when she spotted a woman with a child walking towards her. “She points to me and says, ‘I watched you on TV last night, and this is the reason I’m in this store” rather than a more expensive one, laughs Vaz-Oxlade.
People “always come out of the woodwork. Girls behind counters say, ‘I’ve saved my first $2,000 because of you.’ People e-mail me saying ‘I’ve paid off my debt.’ They’re not asking for any advice; just letting me know they’ve done something. So people are buying (into the show message) big time,” she adds.
Vaz-Oxlade, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, came to Canada in 1977, and began her career as a management consultant to the financial services industry in 1980.
One of the first major assignments Vaz-Oxlade worked on was to design an RRSP self-paced training booklet for Royal Trust’s sales force. That project turned out to be a “huge success,” which parlayed into further assignments involving “every single product they sold,” she recalls.
The work provided Vaz-Oxlade with an in-depth understanding of the technical and legislative aspects behind all major financial products in the market, including mortgages, mutual funds and personal lines of credit. She remembers how, a generation ago, it was difficult for most people to get credit, unlike today, where the easy granting of it has become the hallmark of so many of the problems faced by the people she counsels on television.
In 1985, Vaz-Oxlade formed her own consulting firm, The Catena Group, through which she branched out as a writer and speaker and gained a reputation – at a time when few women were known for providing financial advice.
In 1990, she wrote and self-published The RRSP Answer Book; followed by The Retirement Answer Book (1991) and Shopping for Money: Strategies for Successful Borrowing (1992) – both published by Stoddart. They were the first three of 10 financial books she has written. In 1996, Vaz-Oxlade became a financial columnist for Chatelaine magazine, where both she and the magazine editors quickly discovered that her novel writing style was a hit with readers.
“I remember the first column I wrote where I said some unconventional things” about markets using terms such as ‘wobbly’ and ‘slip-sliding,’” which prompted her editor to e-mail back and say, “It’s spot on. You found your feet, go.”
“After that, I didn’t get edited a lot.” Readers said, in essence, “I can hear you talking. I can hear your voice,” Vaz-Oxlade recalls.
During the 1998-2001 period as the dot.com and high-tech expansionary phases were enjoying giddy heights, Vaz-Oxlade’s writing career was too. At her peak, she wrote some 27 columns a month, including one in the Globe and Mail.
“When money is hot, more space is given to it. Those four years were really hot,” she recalls.
Also during that period Vaz-Oxlade was holding down a frequent guest spot on TV Ontario’s Studio 2 current affairs program, before going on to host her own TVO show called Your Money, which, not surprisingly, led to a hectic lifestyle.
“I was doing features like crazy. I’d get up at 4 a.m. and write until 7 a.m., when I woke the kids up and made them breakfast. My daughter was in school, so I would get her ready and walk her to school. Then my nanny would take over and I would work until 1 p.m.; sleep from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., which is when school ended, then go to school with a cellphone in my pocket.”
But when the topic of money became less popular in the media following the high-tech market crash in 2001-2002, “you had to work harder to get a gig,” she recalls. By this stage, however, she didn’t mind as family pressures began encroaching on her career, especially after son Malcolm was diagnosed with autism and required home schooling.
At that time, Vaz-Oxlade and her husband Ken Prue decided to make a major lifestyle change and move to the country – a plan that came to fruition in 2003. The family moved about 150 kilometres east from their downtown Toronto home to a 25-acre country property in the Northumberland Hills.
“I quit everything. I was bored with writing about money, and nobody would let me write anything else. I was considered a money girl and that was all I was, so I said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I just shut down for two years, took care of my kids and my family, and mucked out the horse stalls.”
Vaz-Oxlade thought she was “done with money, but apparently not,” she laughs. “I got e-mails asking if I was interested in hosting a TV show. I don’t know how they found me.”
When Frantic Films asked her to shoot a screen test in Toronto in 2005 Vaz-Oxlade reluctantly agreed, letting the production company know she was not willing to be away from her children for more than two days a week. They were impressed enough with her audition to offer her a two-day a week shooting schedule, and “it’s been a blast ever since,” says Vaz-Oxlade.
Although this is only the third calendar year she has hosted Til Debt Do Us Part, two seasons are shot at a time, with the fifth season currently in production and seasons six and seven already safely renewed for shooting in 2008.
Even though Vaz-Oxlade had recognition in the past as a result of her columns and appearances on television as a self-confessed “studio show talking head,” nothing comes close to the popularity this show has generated for her.
“I can’t go into any store where the person behind the counter doesn’t want to run out and hug me. When I was in Edmonton, a woman drove three hours to come and get a hug,” Vaz-Oxlade says. At least part of the reason for that, she believes, is viewers have a sense they are getting financial advice in a down-to-earth manner they’ve never heard before and can easily understand.
Vaz-Oxlade uses her folksy style to tell couples what they need to do in simple terms and point out the folly of the financial path they are on. “The fact that I’m a tad outrageous and a little unconventional” makes the program “more fun and approachable,” she says.
Ironically, while she is popular with viewers who may have similar problems, the couples whose homes Vaz-Oxlade enters to provide on-camera counselling tend to “hate me” in the first of her four weekly visits.
The low point of that first day, Vaz-Oxlade says, is usually when she shows them a computer screen with their financial data on it. “I tell them what they’re doing wrong. We all stand at the table, and as I start presenting what’s on the screen, they back away from the shot because they’re backing away from the information.”
By the third of four visits, however, the tide has usually begun to turn and people are more accepting of her advice. “This is when it kicks in,” Vaz-Oxlade says. “It’s very friendly. There’s more hugging. And by week four, they want to build a room in the basement so I can come live with them,” she laughs.
The show has produced some memorable moments. For example, Vaz-Oxlade remembers working with one low-income couple who were having a hard time making ends meet.
“At the end of that show (the wife) said, ‘I have a gift for you.’ I said, ‘You’re not allowed to buy presents for me,’ and she said, ‘Excuse me, I used the money in my gift jar.’ She was on budget and she gave me a little ceramic figurine with a balloon that said ‘hope’ on it.” Vaz-Oxlade says she broke down and cried.
In another instance, a woman wrote to say that Vaz-Oxlade had probably saved her marriage as a result of the financial advice she gave, especially since the wife had never realized how detrimental some of her own spending habits were, and was instead riding her husband about his money situation.
Vaz-Oxlade likes the way Til Debt Do Us Part allows her to make deep personal connections that can positively influence people’s lives. The most personally satisfying aspect of the show, which is not scripted, she says, is “making people change and watching them do it.”