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.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."
You’re not going to be fleet of foot and run from the cheetah because you’re carrying too much.
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?