Dave Ramsey, and the cost of financial freedom

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I used to be a big fan of Dave Ramsey. I still think that he says lots of things that make financial sense. I agree with him that Americans too often live far beyond their means.

Last month, an article came out in Religion News Service, which talked about the environment at Ramsey Solutions. Nothing in the article was all that surprising to me, but it caused me to further evaluate my opinions of Ramsey.

I have three primary issues with Dave.

His tone

I feel like it’s almost become part of Ramsey’s brand that he talks about debt as “stupid” and “dumb.” He regularly talks about it being “stupid” when callers ask Ramsey for advice.

To be fair, Ramsey can also be self-deprecating (saying that he “has a PhD in d.u.m.b.)”

But I have to question why his tone is necessary? He puts people down. I’m sure that this is easy enough for people to explain away or say “that’s just Dave,” “that’s just his personality,” “that’s just tough love.” But I don’t really see why we should justify being rude and talking down to people.

I’ve heard Ramsey talk about poor spending habits not as a disease but as a symptom of a bigger issue. I’d say the same thing about how Ramsey talks to people.

Pride

I see it in his all or nothing approach to his financial philosophy. Ramsey doesn’t want to be someone who you get some good pointers from. He wants you to rigidly follow his system. I just don’t see any humility in that.

The same thing happened this year with Covid and some of the comments that he made about the virus. The RNS article talks about the way Ramsey mocked people who disagreed with his views on the virus. The article quotes Ramsey saying, “We have people calling in, they are wanting to cancel stuff for a live event in May — let me tell you how much of your money I am going to give you back if you don’t come for the coronavirus in May. ZERO. I am keeping your money. You are a wuss.”

Back to the subject of ego, Ramsey tells his callers how they should live their lives. When he has a financial philosophy which is not mathematically the fastest way to even get out of debt.

Ramsey says to pay minimums and pay off debts smallest to largest. It’s quicker to pay off the highest interest items first, but Ramsey justifies his system by arguing that psychologically, it’s more helpful to get small wins and roll that money into the next item. I can even agree with that, however it doesn’t change that there are other legitimate financial approaches to getting out of debt.

And let’s consider his system. According to Ramsey, if a person has any debt at all, when they’re working the baby steps, they should only have $1,000 in the bank. But Ramsey is also militantly opposed to credit cards. Thats’ a very thin cushion to have. I think of people who lost jobs this year who might have been throwing every extra cent at reducing debts. Again, I like what Ramsey says up to a point. I think it’s good to pay things off early. I’m just not “all in.”

I think he teaches an unhealthy relationship with money

Ramsey hates debt. That’s fine. But where I disagree is in his approach to getting out of debt. If someone has any debt at all, Ramsey’s approach is living a spartan life until you’re “debt free.”

That can mean picking up extra jobs. Reducing (ideally eliminating) personal luxuries. Ramsey bashes going to Starbucks (eating out at restaurants, in general). For a person who’s in debt, I’ve heard Ramsey say multiple times that the only time they should see the inside of a restaurant is if they’re working there. No travel. Going cheap on grocery items.

That comes at a cost though too. It comes at costs in terms of happiness. If you’re married, it can come with relational costs. I’ve heard married men call into Ramsey’s show and talk about how their marriages are suffering as they try to get with Ramsey’s program. It makes sense a marriage could struggle under the stress. Ramsey asks people to give up a lot for the sake of being debt free.

I’ve heard Ramsey tell people to work 80 hours a week. There may be times where that’s necessary.

Ramsey acts as though debt is so bad that a person needs to totally upend and orient their life around financial freedom. As if that’s the end all, be all of life. Like I said, that approach comes at a cost too.

Many people do live beyond their means. Ramsey and I would agree that this is unwise. Some people want lots of money so that they can live a certain lifestyle. When we think of money and sin, I think that’s the view we often have. Greed.

But there’s another side of that coin that I think we often overlook. Some people want lots of money, not because they want to finance a high roller lifestyle, but they want lots of money because it gives them a feeling of control over their life. From a Spiritual perspective, that can also be problematic because it can lead to an idolatrous view of money where we make that our highest priority.

Ramsey’s approach to financial freedom very much fuels that approach to money.

Ramsey has built a reputation among evangelical Christians. That’s where he made a name for himself. With churches hosting his Financial Peace University program. I think that there are better places to look.

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