Friday, November 8, 2013

Can faithful Catholics follow the advice of Dave Ramsey?

My ears perked up this morning when a friend posted a Richard Becker article in Crisis Magazine titled "Of Dave Ramsey, Babies and Birth Control" along with the commentary, "Dave Ramsey's money-first mantra is incompatible with Catholic openness to life. I'm sorry, but I choose God's way and the family over a fat bank account."

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dave Ramsey is a Christian financial adviser, author and radio host. His strategy is aggressive debt retirement--living frugally and with a strict budget until student loans, car loans, credit card debt and even home mortgages are entirely paid off. It's a common sense approach that makes a lot of sense given how many households are crippled by debt accumulated through financial decisions that were naive at best naive and reckless at worst.

As newlyweds right out of college, Laura and I didn't live on a budget and we didn't even balance our checkbook. We didn't run up debt, but we also barely scraping by. With a growing family it became clear we were headed nowhere fast.

Fortunately, some friends told us about Dave Ramsey. We got on a budget, started aggressively limited expenditures, and retired significant student debt ahead of schedule. These decisions paved the way for us to become homeowners two years ago and provided some extra peace when Laura gave birth for the second time last fall. There's always room to quibble, but you can definitely say that Dave Ramsey's advice has been a huge help in our marriage.

So what's the gripe in Crisis Magazine?
 Anyway, for a brief time—an extremely brief time—we were debt-free, except for the mortgage. We had become “gazelle intense,” in Ramsey parlance, and we were on the road to becoming totally debt-free! But then God blessed us with another baby. And then another. Suddenly, our “financial peace” went out the window, and we were scrambling to replace those shredded credit cards.
Obviously, Becker's suggestion here is that having children requires accumulation of credit card debt and that financial peace depends on a family spending more than it earns. And is the author suggesting that retiring all his credit card debt before the kids started coming was a detriment to financial peace? I think it should be immediately clear that this is a silly stance, and I won't waste any more words refuting it.

Becker goes on to argue that Ramsey's approach is incompatible with openness to life, citing a response he gave on the radio to a woman asking how the program changes for large families:
The program doesn’t change one ounce. What does change is—and you already knew this long before you met Dave Ramsey—when you choose to have seven children, that is called a lot of financial burden. It’s not a criticism; it’s just a mathematical fact.

You’re not going to be fleet of foot and run from the cheetah because you’re carrying too much.
Let's take a look at the phrases Becker bolded in his attempt to prove that Ramsey's approach is incompatible with openness to life. "When you choose to have seven children...", I suppose, could seem like it's a criticism. Except for the fact that Ramsey immediately followed it up by saying, "It's not a criticism; it's just a mathematical fact."

But surely it's unacceptable to say that large families are "carrying too much", right? Who is Dave Ramsey to tell this poor woman how many kids are too many!"

The issue here is that Ramsey isn't telling his listener that her family is too big. He's saying her family is just too big to retire debt at the same pace as smaller families. Let's take a look at some context the author skipped over:
It slows down the plan. It slows down you hitting big financial goals or little financial goals because you’ve got this drain on the math. It’s a wonderful drain; it’s a glorious drain, but it’s a drain....You’re not going to be fleet of foot and run from the cheetah because you’re carrying too much. You’re going to be a Clydesdale, but the Clydesdale wins. They just win in a different fashion than the gazelle wins.
If Dave Ramsey were truly hostile to human life, he'd probably be recommending a vasectomy, and he certainly wouldn't be referring to a big family as wonderful and glorious. 

Still, Becker continues by attacking Ramsey for placing his faith in money, control and planning:
Ramsey posits planning and control that revolves around money, whereas the Church advocates abandonment and surrender revolving around generous openness to new life—something that doesn’t always make sense on the spreadsheet. And, like it or not, that abandonment, surrender, and generosity can’t be budgeted for nor planned. It’s not math; it’s more like falling in love.
Becker has engaged in a straw man argument. Nowhere did Ramsey say that people should have fewer kids or be less open to life. I do find some irony in the fact that while Ramsey never suggests postponing pregnancy due to economic concerns, Humana Vitae does:
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
Yes, we need to be generous in our openness to life. Yes, we need to be willing to spontaneously answer the Lord's call. But we should also remember the Lord's words in the Gospel of Luke: "Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?"

When Becker asks "Why not throw caution to the wind, and lean heavily on the Providence of God", I'm reminded of something my dad once said: "Yes, we need to trust God. But He gave us two arms, two legs and a brain for a reason." Budgeting is simply intelligent stewardship of the gifts God has blessed us with.

Becker's fourth and final attack on Ramsey concerns his suggestion that those in debt take a second job to help retire that debt:
Even the Pew Research Center gets this, as demonstrated in their study on parents and kids. “When it comes to feeling happy,” the study concludes, “time with children … beats time at work.” Does this create a paradox for those trying to follow the Ramsey way? You bet! Dave would have those parents out working a second job in order to pare down their debt and work toward a life of leisure in the future.
I wonder how happy those children will feel when the house is foreclosed upon. Ramsey's suggestion of a second job is typically offered as a temporary means of escaping crippling debt--especially debt that is so problematic that the family is put at risk.

Of course, we might also consider that our perspective in 21st century America is little different from real life in any other time and place in history. I highly doubt that St. Joseph worked a 9-5, 40 hour a week job back in Nazareth. But among the reasons we honor him is that he worked himself into the ground--even dying an early death!--to provide for his family.

Ultimately, the critical error that Becker makes is in repeatedly implying that openness to life and financial responsibility are mutually exclusive. And if they are, then openness to life is, by definition, irresponsible. But a rational God would never call us to be irresponsible. When it comes to our children, He calls us to dutifully "provid[e] for their physical and intellectual wants."

What do you think?


  1. We had a Dave Ramsey course at our parish in La Crosse. CC folks were none too happy because it wasn't the "Catholic way." I imagine even if Ramsey became Catholic the witch hunt would continue. Articles like this make it clear it's less about the facts and more about the fideism (to borrow a word from a friend which I had to google).

  2. I listen to his show frequently, as it fits into my schedule well when it's on the radio here. He's very obviously a Protestant.

    He's not going to match up 110% w/ Catholic teaching. Heck, most "catholics" don't. In the time I've been listening often, I haven't seen him in the way Becker paints him. When people bring it up, he's just frank that it's going to cost more to have more kids (duh), but I've never heard him disparage someone for doing so.

  3. I should also mention that Ramsey is fond of quoting St. Francis de Sales on his radio show as well.

  4. MJ,
    Can you clarify what the "CC" in CC folks is?

  5. I have to confess that I have very happily listened to Dave Ramsey for years. I agree with him 98.2% of the time. (That was supposed to be funny, but I really do agree with him most of the time). I hear almost nothing that I can quibble with from a theological standpoint, but then, as you say, he is talking about financial accountability. He advocating doing things the way my parents did it. It works! That's why in their later years they were able to go on three pilgrimages with Cardinal Burke (back when he was bishop of La Crosse) and have done many other things including significant support for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And all of this while enjoying their children and grandchildren. I would agree with Matt in that some people are just too ready to #1) pick on anyone that isn't Catholic (like Catholics are the only ones in the world who love God and who can come up with or recognize a good idea when they see it - Fideism is a good name for it); and #2) try to be "more Catholic than the pope" (the recognition of the critic being farther from Humane Vitae than Dave seems to be). There have been many foolish moves made in this state by Church leaders (cleric and lay alike) who subscribe to the former, and many tragic moves made by those who subscribe to the latter.

    1. Fr. Michael, I have never listened to this gentleman's show but I have met many people who have been helped by his advice. I don't know enough about his show to offer any comments regarding it. But I do know that a child is far more important than a pilgrimage, or a shrine. I'm not opposed, nor is the Church opposed, to couples delaying pregnancy by licit means for serious reasons, but the possibility of a future pilgrimage would hardly measure up to that standard. One of the problems with our culture is this idea that at some point we will have "given" enough and then we should be able to sit back and enjoy ourselves because we have earned it or deserve it. This is opposed to the witness of the Gospels and the complete giving, the utter pouring out of our Lord of Himself during His entire life, passion, death and resurrection. Our life, no matter our vocation, should be modeled on the life of Christ. I may have just outed myself as a "Fideist" but I think I will have a hard time being more Catholic than this Pope. Thanks Padre!

  6. I would say Ramsey is right on the money about 90% of the time.
    The entire concept that the $$$ I earn doesn't belong to me but to God, credit cards are the devil, and the whole concept of Tithing is nothing I as a Catholic can agree to.
    Props to Ramsey for helping people out though which puts his net worth at 55 million.

  7. You can't agree that all you are given belongs to God? That a credit card's only purpose generate wealth for the bank while draining and straining your wealth or ability to generate it? Is tithing against Catholic teaching even though it has a basis in Scripture? While you don't hear the word tithe in a homily we are supposed to support our parishes and what an amazing parish it would be with a financially responsible priest and every family donating 10% of their incomes instead of $1, $5, or maybe even $10 in the collection basket once a week, regardless of income or family size. Just maybe the parish would be able to cash flow community events that serve to build up the parish family, rather than serve as a fundraiser because we can't seem to get it right during the offertory.
    There are those Christians who fully tithe WHILE getting out of debt and do just fine and I bet their giving probably goes up once they're debt free, if not to their church they start donating to charities.
    I've rarely had an issue with Dave's theology being counter to Catholic teaching as it pertains to handling money. So though he isn't Catholic, he is Christian, and he IS helping people. This is one area we as Catholics are sorely lacking and I'm debating on going through Financial Peace and then seeing if I can start a group in a local parish to help turn some lives around. It's like there's a comparable "Catholic" course out there and the time to tweak his program to fit isn't worth the trouble. Worst case, one could use the Smart Dollar program, which is FPU designed for business, which I believe has the Christianity portion dialed down if not entirely removed.


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