A ViewPoint by Alena Amato Ruggerio
Seven years ago, my husband and I were in an alarming amount of debt. I wish I could say we were desperate and stressed, but the truth is we had no concept of the peril we were in. Student loans, car payments, and credit card interest were just normal in our world.
And then we met evangelical Christian personal finance advisor Dave Ramsey. Through his podcasts, radio show, television show, books, and eventually his 13-week course, Financial Peace University, Ramsey gave us the lifelong gift of financial literacy education we’d never received at home or in school.
The point isn’t the amount of debt we dug ourselves out of or the current size of our savings account; the point is that thanks to Dave Ramsey, for the rest of our lives no matter how much money we might or might not make, we now feel confident that we’ll know exactly what to do—and what not to do—with it.
Which brings us to the teapot tempest du jour. Tom Corley posted an article on Dave Ramsey’s website called “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day” describing some differences in daily reading habits, television viewing, and goal-setting between the wealthy and poor Americans he studied for his book Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals. Rachel Held Evans, known to us Christian feminists as the author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, was one of the critics who shot back. She published “What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty” on CNN’s Belief Blog. The controversy grew to the point that Ramsey appended a rebuttal to Corley’s original post.
I’m not objective in this minor kerfuffle. I was one of those “middle class Americans struggling with mounting credit card bills” that Evans acknowledges is Ramsey’s target audience. I’m writing this blog post in a warm home I couldn’t have afforded seven years ago, on a computer I bought with cash, on the sofa beside a husband with whom I haven’t had a significant money fight in ages . . . because of Dave Ramsey. I’ve done his trademark “debt-free scream” with jubilant decibels in front of a church audience, I’ve had my e-mail read on his television show, and I’ve had a question answered by the man himself live on the air. I don’t know him personally, but after consuming countless hours of Dave Ramsey’s media output over quite a few years now, I can recognize what I feel are mischaracterizations in the CNN opinion piece.
Don’t conflate Dave Ramsey with Tom Corley
Evans’ first line is “Dave Ramsey is rich. And he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich too.” Although Tom Corley seems to be free with the language of “getting rich,” Dave Ramsey is not. Ramsey’s message is about financial peace.
The difference is that financial peace can be found at nearly any income level. Financial peace is what I’ve described in my own life: It’s the agency to make wise money decisions because I finally understand not just what to do but why. It’s the knowledge of my legal rights if I’m hounded by abusive debt collectors. It’s the confidence of knowing how to navigate confusing insurance language. It’s the satisfaction of helping an investment-eager friend who wouldn’t know her fiduciary from her Fidelity. It’s the relief of replacing my teeth-gritting resentment of every hunk of plastic my husband buys with trust in the “blow money” allowance we’ve set aside to spend on ourselves each month. It’s the honor of increasing my level of giving at my church.
I don’t disagree with Evans: I’m well aware that my picture of financial peace does indeed come straight out of middle class American privilege. Nor am I interrogating here the systemic injustices that condemn people living in at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum to generations of poverty. But it’s also true that few people have done more than Dave Ramsey—even from the classist, individualist standpoint of someone who’s a personal finance adviser, not a social activist—to equip people in vulnerable positions such as prisoners, military personnel, and immigrants who speak only Spanish to “change their family tree” by having hope and taking concrete action. The issue of poverty in America is a combination of both individual behavior and systemic oppression. Although Dave Ramsey addresses only one side of that equation, that’s no reason not to address it.
Don’t conflate Dave Ramsey with proponents of the Prosperity Gospel
Ramsey’s angry rebuttal to the criticism of Corley’s post is the closest I’ve ever seen him come to anything resembling traditional prosperity theology. Every time the topic of tithing has come up on the radio show, for example, Ramsey is careful to explicitly state that “God won’t love you more if you tithe.” And I have never heard him claim that more financial benefits will come to Christians for their beliefs, or that Americans deserve our global wealth because we somehow work harder.
As a lefty progressive feminist Christian, there are certainly aspects of Dave Ramsey’s message I’ve had to hold my nose through to get to the helpful material, but the prosperity gospel hasn’t been one of them. I continue to be disturbed that gay people don’t seem to exist in Ramseyland. Not one word about the special gymnastics required for estate planning and tax strategies for my lesbian and gay beloveds. And the old DVD recordings of Dave teaching Financial Peace University contained some icky sexism, once referring to women as “barking chihuahuas” and making a joke about women secreting anxiety from a security-craving gland. FPU has been revised from thirteen weeks down to nine, and I haven’t seen the new version of the course, so I am hoping such regrettables have been replaced with more inclusion and sensitivity.
Don’t conflate a list of behaviors with a list of causes
In the original posting, Corley merely lists a series of contrasting behaviors while making no explicit claims of causation or correlation between the behaviors and the acquisition of wealth. In Ramsey’s addendum, he does go so far as to argue that choices beget consequences, but he certainly doesn’t say that watching reality TV makes you poor and that listening to nonfiction audio books on the morning drive makes you rich.
When I first read Corley’s post I rolled my eyes at the screen, mildly irritated that his list of behaviors of some wealthy people vs. some poor people diverts attention from the much more vital list of behaviors I’ve learned from Ramsey himself. One of the keys to my financial education was to learn the practices likely to perpetuate financial servitude (credit card interest payments and late fees, buying more car or college than the family could afford, not anticipating life’s expenses from roof leaks to Christmas gifts) in contrast with the practices likely to increase financial peace (actually writing down and sticking to a budget, paying for weekly expenses in cash, avoiding pipe dreams like the lottery and investing in gold). Again, both the pitfalls and the new habits were aimed at the level of individual behaviors, but also notice here how Ramsey’s list of do’s and don’t’s are more directly germane to personal finance literacy than Corley’s.
My read on this little online dust-up is that Tom Corley wrote a posting unworthy of Dave Ramsey, and Dave Ramsey answered Corley’s critics with another posting unworthy of Dave Ramsey. Our takeaway as Christian feminists is that using whatever financial resources we’ve been blessed with to increase God’s justice and peace in the world starts in our own homes and pocketbooks.
© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today.