I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Dave Ramsey-is-insensitive-and-privileged party.

He wrote a ridiculous post about “habits” of rich people in which he showed that he is super out of touch with what it’s like to be poor, and is a subscriber to prosperity gospel stuff, which is a lovely Gnostic sort of plague on American culture, shown most clearly in political discussions in which the word “entitled” is used to reference the assumption that “people who aren’t as well off as us must be lazy.”

Rachel Held Evans and a few others responded to him, on Twitter and through blog posts and made some good points, and now RHE’s post is going nuts on my Facebook feed.

His privilege is clearly an issue. We are right to be angry at his post and the assumptions therein.

Looking at his teachings more broadly, I’ve observed that long-term, Ramsey’s financial ideas are not especially sound. They don’t teach you how to use credit responsibly, they don’t teach you how to invest, they don’t teach you many important financial management principles that one needs to build wealth well in America.

And for someone like me, who grew up without ever going into debt, who didn’t have student loans, and never owned a credit card, it was downright damaging to my financial stability this year. I couldn’t get a small loan to buy a used car, I haven’t got any sort of credit score or history and therefore I haven’t had a “safety net” of a good visa card, etc., etc. I have had to play catch up to just exist in the credit system so I can do basic life things, like: get approved for an apartment on my own. Thanks, Dave Ramsey! I felt like a trope, the helpless, financially dependent female. [And yes, I have been very lucky to have experienced the privilege that later caused me financial complications this year.]

But I did sit through a handful of his seminars and read at least one of his books, and discussed in great detail his principles with various family members who took his courses over the last decade or so.

And I have to say, it’d be “stoopid” (as he says) to write off his teachings completely. Yes, he’s rich, white, and an arrogant dude. It’s silly to teach that debt is “slavery” and sinful. Sure, debt can be “stoopid,” but it’s just bullshit to think that Jesus is going to love you less if you have student loans.

But if you’re middle class, white, averagely financially literate, and born after 1960, it’s likely he’d be good for you. Ramsey is a skilled manipulator and motivator — part of why 1) he has so many blind followers, and 2) part of why I’m really glad he’s not a pastor — and he exercises his very specific abilities to help a very specific set of people.

Not everything he says is sound — I’m not sure cash is more “painful” than a debit card to use — but he helps those who are either in denial or just numb with fear about their debt by shaking them awake and getting them to start practicing some measure of control and awareness about their spending habits and the long-term ramifications of various debts.

His “snowball” method is not the best way to get rid of debt, but it is motivating and helpful if you’re so scared of your loans and the numbers just seem insurmountable. His “gazelle intensity” is silly, but can be effective, like having a workout coach push you for the first six weeks of your New Year’s exercise plan. A tool is a tool is a tool.

So: Dave Ramsey is a privileged bully, yes. His financial advice is bad long-term. And I hate that he uses shame so much. But, he is very useful for those who need a little courage to start to embrace the challenge of America’s favorite daydream, the self-made man. If they can.


  • Vicki S.

    We took Ramsey’s course, and my husband pointed out at the time
    that there was nothing revolutionary about Dave Ramsey’s financial
    principles. You can find all of his best information – how to
    budget, get off the debt treadmill, and make sacrifices now for big returns
    later — in any decent finance book. You’re right that his “snowball”
    method (paying off the smallest loan first) isn’t the most efficient. If
    you’re the sort of person who can put your head down and stay the course, it’s
    much better to pay off the loans with the highest interest rates first.

    Ramsey’s “genius” is in making personal finance interesting and
    motivating. For vast numbers of people, a discussion about finances is
    about as thrilling as a long-delayed trip to the dentist ; it’s something
    you deal with when you “gotta,” but is ignored for as long as possible.
    Obviously, handling my finances that way isn’t going to put me on the fast
    track to financial “peace,” and in his seminars Dave Ramsey puts on a party to
    get us to engage with a boring and stressful subject in a fun way.
    Through his cajoling and humor, striking data graphics, and repetition of key
    phrases he attempts to get you to think differently about the “deadly
    discipline” of personal finance and the seemingly insignificant choices that,
    in the aggregate, can hamstring one’s prosperity for the long-term. He
    interviews numerous seminar attendees who pulled themselves out of massive debt
    using his methods, and many of these individuals were from a low-income demographic. There was no mention of a prosperity gospel or calling debt “sinful” in the seminar we attended, though clearly Ramsey eschews debt and works hard to persuade seminar attendees to do the same. In my opinion, other than the fact
    that the course was held in a church, there was nothing strikingly Christian
    about his presentation.

    Your points are well-taken, and if I were redesigning a Ramsey
    course, there are definitely things I would change. But the reason why
    his seminars work for so many is more about the high energy of the presentation
    than the uniqueness of his financial principles. And perhaps the
    supportive community – both in the classes and online — is a factor as well.

  • Steve W

    I also have conflicting views on Ramsey. It is a one size fits all “black and white” program. His program might not be perfect but that he can get a lot of people to follow it IMO is a lot better than someone not following any plan at all. I would say that his program is more designed for a young couple that are in a lot of debt and need a good plan to get out.

    Ramsey has been criticized on his view of the poor. Ramsey may have some good thoughts on why some of them but I don’t think he understands the whole perspective. One good book that helps explain why the poor are the way they are is a book titled “Scarcity: Why having so little means so much.” One money writer wrote about this book in her column:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/unpacking-the-scarcity-mind-set-why-having-too-little-means-so-much/2013/11/07/d5311f66-4652-11e3-bf0c-cebf37c6f484_story.html

    The book makes interesting reading and gives some interesting reasons why the poor remain poor with some ideas on how this can be overcome.

    Ramsey also supports the view that tithing is “biblical” without question. One thing that most teachers/pastors seem to conveniently ignore is what the tithe was used for. A good analysis of what it was used for can be found here:

    http://www.tithingdebate.com/EatingSacredCowsDownload.pdf

    What this author shows is rather than 10% of your income going to the equivalent of today’s church it was used for annual travel and enjoyment to Jerusalem during most years. It is shocking how tithing is taught as being so “biblical” but the Old Testament use is so widely ignored. Ramsey isn’t the only one who ignores this.

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