How a Personal Finance Expert Taught Me About a Lot More Than Money

Dave Ramsey and I are ideological opposites. Listening to his show made me realize that doesn’t matter as much as I thought.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

If you don’t know who Dave Ramsey is, then there’s a high likelihood that you’re probably someone like me: a liberal millennial who, under most circumstances, is not remotely interested in hearing what conservative baby boomers think about how you should live your life.

If you do know who he is, then it’s likely you are one of the millions of Americans who is in serious debt. The Ramsey Show is the third largest nationally syndicated radio show in the U.S., with 20 million combined weekly listeners. His “seven baby steps” formula and 19 national bestselling books have helped millions of people get out of millions of dollars of debt. Every day, people call into his show and ask him about everything from when to refinance a mortgage to whether they should leave their toxic spouse who is racking up gambling debt. Dave — along with his rotating cast of good-natured and acquiescent co-hosts—does his damndest to help them.

I first stumbled upon Dave Ramsey thanks to to what I’m assuming was a glitch in my liberal YouTube echo chamber. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of debt at the time, at least not by the standards of most Americans. But well into my late twenties, my laissez-faire attitude toward my student loans, my poor track record of saving money, looming freelance tax payments, life in an expensive city, and a modest amount of credit card debt (around $1,200) had started to weigh on me. After six years of chaotic and unpredictable freelancing, I had a regular salary for the first time in my life, and I wanted to know what to do with it. I had a sense that if I didn’t correct my innocuous early-twenties money habits now, they would turn into more serious thirtysomething troubles any day.

And so about three years ago I started tuning into Dave’s advice regularly, and I haven’t stopped since. His prevailing message is about living radically within your means, disavowing yourself of the strange American notion that there is such a thing as “good debt,” and working your ass off until you are a person who is no longer in negative net worth territory—only then can you start to do things like go on vacation and buy a decent car, Dave says. Oh, and cash is king.

Much of his guidance is antithetical to the kind of personal finance advice I had inherited growing up in wealthy places and climbing the ranks of a creative industry where people work for “exposure” rather than, you know, money. While I certainly didn’t follow Dave’s advice to the letter (Dave would say I wasn’t following his advice at all, in that case) his tough-love, easy-to-follow formula was, and still is, the only thing that’s ever helped me stick to a budget, save, and start to confidently make my way out of debt.

But as I compulsively ingested Dave’s advice in the form of six-to-nine-minute YouTube videos — usually on autoplay in the background as I tidied the kitchen — something else far more profound happened. I started to flex the muscle of not just listening to someone I profoundly disagree with every day, but genuinely respecting what they have to say, too. I slowly remembered what it felt like to hear a viewpoint that I find wrong or objectionable, and not reflexively cancel the person espousing it. In effect, I came for the no-nonsense personal finance advice, I stayed for the lesson in navigating our culture’s enormous ideological chasm, and finding some common ground therein.

Money problems aren’t math problems

Dave is a devout Christian, and while he studiously manages to avoid signaling support or disapproval for any individual politician on his radio show — among his favorite quips is “you’ve been spending like you’re in Congress”—it is a safe assumption that he lies on the right side of the political spectrum. He does not care for big government and would probably consider the idea of paying more taxes for someone else’s health care as socialism — and not in the fun, Scandi-adjacent way that millennials like me use that term.

Dave loves it when callers tell him they are getting married, but he insists that married couples merge all finances completely, and that any other method is likely to result in divorce. Dave is also fond of making fun of California for the high tax rates, high cost of living, and, presumably, high-as-a-kite liberals. He has little time for conversations about structural inequality, or the root cause of why 32% of Americans have medical debt — a concept that scarcely even exists in the rest of the developed world. Instead, Dave wants you to take radical responsibility for your own life and build abundant wealth from there.

I am more or less Dave’s antithesis on all of those fronts. I live in the U.K. now (despite growing up and attending university in California) and would debate Dave to the ends of the warming earth about how socialized health care is a fundamentally better option compared to America’s utterly inhumane, truly medieval system. If I ever do get married—and that’s a big if—you can bet your last emergency fund dollar that I will be retaining a bank account and some funds solely in my name. And while I am all for taking responsibility for my own life, I am also aware of the extent to which my own privilege (being a white American/British able-bodied woman, having parents who have helped me, having access to adequate health care and therapy) has profoundly boosted my ascent through my career and life in general.

Now that’s all out the way, let’s talk about what Dave and I agree on.

Dave rightly points out that money problems aren’t math problems; they’re emotional problems. If you’re saddled with debts of all different sums, your lights are turned off by the electric company, you just maxed out your credit card on groceries, you are not in any place to be doing math — you are justifiably terrified and deserving of compassion. Giving a person in this situation advice about refinancing their debt is laughable. They need step-by-step instructions to get their head above water so they can begin to think straight. Dave gives them that.

Once you “get current”—which is effectively step zero in the Ramsey program—Dave will tell you it’s time to tell your money what to do. This may sound obvious, but I suspect I speak for many people when I say it was a breakthrough for me. Once I figured out the minimum feasible amount I actually needed to live each month— rather than the freelancer’s bad habit of just living on the money that happened to show up in my bank account each month—I could start to put the rest of it to use effectively.

I made an itemized, detailed budget before I got paid each month, and then the very instant my paycheck hit my account, I began meting out pre-determined sums to my various sins: credit card, student loans, tax payments on account, etc. For the rest of the month, the cash flow available for profligate, out-of-budget spending was basically nonexistent, because I already made it all do its job. All of a sudden, going out for an impromptu dinner on a Tuesday night when I hadn’t budgeted for it was no longer appealing. I could see for the first time that even though there was money in my account, I couldn’t actually afford to spend it on that. I did keep my credit cards for emergencies and work-related travel (this is a cardinal sin in the Ramsey program, and Dave would yell at me for doing it) because I was confident I could avoid using them irresponsibly. (I was right about that, but I’m still sorry Dave.)

One of Dave’s most iconoclastic pieces of advice is the order in which you should pay off your debts. Conventional wisdom says you should pay off your highest-interest debt first. Dave says no way. He gives us the debt snowball: List all your debts from smallest to largest (not counting a mortgage), and attack them in that order. Put another way, after meeting your minimum payments on all your debts each month, you direct the rest of your available funds to the smallest debt first and work your way up from there. For most people, this process—known as baby step two—takes a few years. Even though it will result in more interest paid over time, Dave insists you need the “small wins” up front to get you fired up and motivated for the long slog of paying off the big stuff. The endless stories of people who’ve found success paying off enormous amounts of debt in 18 to 24 months with this method would suggest he is right about that.

Then there is the topic on which Dave really changed my viewpoint: student loans. I did what many 17- or 18-year-old Americans did. I signed on the dotted line because that is what my parents, teachers, and virtually everyone I trusted told me to do. I had no understanding of what I was doing, how this system worked, or what a 6% or 7% interest rate would translate to over 20 or so years. For most of my twenties, I didn’t worry much about my federal student loans, using an income-based repayment plan which kept my payments manageable. This was good debt, after all, right? I didn’t need to treat it with the priority that I might treat credit card debt.

As you might have guessed by now, Dave taught me I was very wrong about that. He helped me reframe how I think of student debt: as not just another monthly line item like the internet bill, but rather an albatross you want off your back ASAP. In other words, they are reason enough to scale back your lifestyle until they’re paid off, even if you have a good professional job. If I had spent even half of what I spent on travel in my twenties to student loans, I would’ve paid a lot less interest over time, and they’d most definitely be gone by now.

From what I can tell, the topic of student loans is a rare one where Dave doesn’t entirely default to the gospel of personal responsibility. He routinely speaks of the government’s abysmal failure to fix the student loan system, the dishonesty of the public service loan forgiveness program, and how we can’t blame 18-year-olds for doing what everyone in authority in their life tells them to do. (However, if you’re in six-figure debt for a PhD in philosophy, he’s probably gonna tell you that was really stupid.) And here is one policy item that he and I agree wholeheartedly on: President Biden’s rumored student loan forgiveness isn’t going to do much good if we don’t address the system that lulls kids into leveraging their entire financial futures to get degrees that may or may not result in well-paying jobs, and then allows private companies to slap predatory interest rates on those loans to boot.

Compassion is the common ground

These lessons I learned from Dave are financial in nature, but there is something else at the core of his message, and it’s the place I think Dave and I find our common ground: His advice is rooted in compassion. He deeply wants people to feel in control of their lives again, and he understands why they are very scared when they aren’t. (Dave will tell you he has been in serious financial trouble himself, and is haunted by the days when American Express used to call his house.) While he often gets mad at people when they’ve done stupid things, he also demonstrates a lot of empathy and genuine feeling when someone is in pain. You can’t fake that, even on YouTube.

Dave encourages people not just to sort out their money, and to go to church if they are Christian, but also seek counseling or therapy to sort out their emotions, destructive patterns, and relationships, too. He spreads the idea that if you’re in a tough spot, hard work will always save you, which is one of the few American values I can still wholeheartedly stand behind. He tells people that getting control of their finances and having a concrete plan in the form of a budget will give them more satisfaction and relief than any impulse purchase or vacation. I can confirm that he is right about that.

It’s entirely possible that, had I dwelled on the fact that Dave’s ideological and political views are the antithesis of mine, and worried that I might be viewed unfavorably by my woke liberal peers for giving such a “problematic” personality my internet clicks, I never would have benefitted from his financial advice. Nor would I have stumbled upon this larger lesson I’m sharing here.

Dave and I would probably agree that our world is filled with much injustice, inequality, suffering, and pain. We would almost certainly disagree on how to fix much of that. But the right approach to bettering our broken world is not to assume the absolute worst of every person who doesn’t entirely agree with us. Or to cancel anyone who does not affirm our viewpoint and worldview in totality, condemning them as racist-sexist-fill-in-the-blank. (If they are calling for violence or harm or speaking in overt racist/sexist/homophobic terms, that’s different. Obviously.) Sadly, when I go online to visit my corner of the internet these days, I see very few people who agree with me on that.

I know it sounds trite when we’re still emerging from a Covid-Trump-Capitol-insurrection hellscape, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Empathic listening is like a muscle. You gotta use it or lose it. All those hours of autoplaying Dave Ramsey’s show while doing the dishes reminded me that I am capable of vehemently disagree with people on political and moral issues, while still maintaining enough respect to engage with them on the merit of their ideas. I can even go so far as to accept the wisdom and help they have on offer, provided it’s given in good faith. In doing so, I might even remember that I do not know everything, my particular beliefs are not fixed objective truths, and that it is not in my best interest to move through the planet acting as though I do, or they are.

These days, when it comes to money, I do feel like a different person, even though I’m still on baby step two. I have no credit card debt. I’m paying down my student loans far faster than I otherwise would have. I am religious about saving for taxes when I get freelance checks, and saving and setting aside money generally feels natural to me now. During the pandemic, I also came to the conclusion, at age 31, that living in one of the most expensive cities in the world in service of my creative career will mean I am going to have to work myself to the bone for decades to get anywhere near financial security. That life calculation didn’t seem worth it anymore (Dave would say, “Yeah! Duh!”) and so I moved.

I’m grateful to Dave for all of this. When I pay my last student loan payment, I plan to tag his account on Instagram to express my gratitude. I don’t even care if I get canceled for doing it.

Writing about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: rojospinks.com @rojospinks.

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