Few people today interested in personal money management have not heard the name Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has built an empire of financial counseling that includes a nationally-syndicated radio show, a slot on Fox Business channel, and a NY Times bestseller, The Total Money Makeover. His website claims that over 1,000,000 families have taken Financial Peace University (FPU), his financial class designed to help people take charge of their money. On average, the website claims, attendees pay off $5,300 in debt and save $2,700 in just 90 days. FPU is billed as “a 13-week video curriculum—taught by financial expert Dave Ramsey—that incorporates small-group discussions to encourage accountability and discipleship. Financial Peace University is highly entertaining for everyone, with a unique combination of humor, informative financial advice and biblical messages.”
With such stunning results, it’s easy to understand why so many people are turning to Ramsey for financial advice. Since FPU is marketed to churches (along with other institutions such as businesses and the military), it is worth the effort to examine the program and evaluate it biblically. While Ramsey professes to be a Christian and uses Scripture liberally (in his church version of FPU), I discovered profound problems with the program, both in its content, and in its use by churches as an evangelistic tool. What follows is not a thorough critique, but a general attempt to evaluate the program biblically and theologically, while being as charitable as possible.
FPU is a professionally-presented, entertaining course of financial management. It does not teach advanced skills such as stock market investing or business finance, but focuses on the individual’s escape from debt and saving for the future. My wife and I learned many invaluable lessons, some of which were reminders, others that were new and crucial.
First, FPU teaches the simplicity and power of saving. Using vivid examples and simple charts, Ramsey shows the power of compound interest (although he presents wildly optimistic interest rates as normal). This taught us that anyone could save a little over many years and gain considerable interest through consistent investing. Also, Ramsey emphasizes living on a written budget, something we had not done so explicitly in the past. This has proven to be one of the most difficult disciplines to master. But Ramsey is right, that if you don’t tell your money what to do, you’ll wonder where it went. Budgeting is simply naming every dollar at the beginning of the month, and assigning it a place. I’ve heard this before, but it was good reminder.
Second, FPU teaches people how to get out of debt. The most powerful testimonials in FPU are those stories of people getting out of massive amounts of debt through the principles learned in the class. I personally know of one person who worked her way out of $60,000 of debt in less than three years through FPU. This alone may make the course worth many times its $100 price tag. Ramsey also gives helpful advice regarding creditors, credit scores, collection agencies and telemarketing.
Third, FPU teaches the inside story of marketing, and how to buy things wisely, with cash, and for a bargain price. He teaches the power of negotiating, even for things you thought had a fixed price. He also teaches invaluable lessons regarding identity theft and what kinds of insurances to buy and not to buy. He gives advice about real estate (Ramsey’s area of expertise), job interviews, retirement, and college savings. Some of the advice in these areas is debatable, but generally helpful. It would be wise to get advice from other sources as well in order to get differing perspectives on these vital areas.
While taking the course, my wife and I were given access to a wide variety of helpful tools through the FPU website. Readers should be aware, however, that once the thirteen weeks are over, many of these services require a subscription fee to continue using. In fact, for many of the topics covered in FPU, Ramsey’s company offers services that require payment once the class has ended, including insurances, financial advice, and identity theft protection. One is quickly reminded that this is a business, not a ministry, even though at times, the “feel” of it is church-like.
For all its benefits regarding financial advice, however, I found several troubling problems with FPU. Before I treat what I consider to be the truly bad elements of FPU, I would like to point out its ugliness first.
It doesn’t take more than a few weeks of exposure to the FPU videos before Ramsey’s arrogance and self-glorification becomes obvious. Dave Ramsey is not a humble man, and I would argue strongly that what some perceive to be his self-confidence is actually a bad case of egotism. After a few weeks of the class, I could barely control my gag reflex anymore when at the beginning of EACH video, all of his accolades (see above) were mentioned AGAIN. No doubt, this bald self-promotion is applauded by the world, but in a Christian atmosphere, it was downright sickening. On the way to FPU class one week I said to my wife in disgust, “I can’t stand to see his face again, and hear him brag about his money.” But this is not the truly ugly aspect of FPU.
The ugliest facet of FPU is actually something internal to me. I can’t really blame Dave Ramsey for this, but FPU does bear some responsibility. I found growing in my heart, after the first few weeks, a subtle materialism and greed I had never experienced before. So much of the advice given in FPU is designed to help people earn the kind of wealth that would free them from ever having to worry about money again. This is a rather explicit message throughout FPU and is reinforced by the oft-repeated mantra, “Live like no one else now, so you can live like no one else later.” The first half of this motto is helpful. It encourages frugality, saving and financial planning, but the second half promotes a lavish lifestyle and self-sufficiency. Audiences are wowed by compound-interest tables showing what it takes to retire with two, five and even eleven million dollars. Ramsey tells story after story of his wealth and what he has been able to purchase in cash, the financial freedom his millions have earned him, and how you too can live this way, thank you very much.
Now, I don’t blame Ramsey entirely for the greed I found being nurtured in my heart. He was simply telling the truth about the amazing power of compound interest. I found myself fantasizing about how comfortably we could live if we could just sock away the recommended amount for the recommended number of years. For a couple weeks my head was in the stars, and all thoughts of sacrificial service and daily bread were gone. I eventually came to recognize my greed and confess it as such. I had tried never to live for money in the past, so why were promises of millions suddenly turning my head at age 43?
There is a clear message throughout FPU—if you are not getting richer, you are a loser. In fact, in one of the videos, Ramsey says as much when he quips that if you are making the same amount of money you did twenty years ago, you are a loser. This is the ugly side of FPU. It knows nothing of sacrifice, of losing one’s life, of taking up one’s cross. It is a theology of glory and power and wealth, not of suffering and humiliation. Money seems to attain godlike status at times in FPU, as if it were the solution to everything. At one point Ramsey claims that having more money means less money fights in a marriage. Really? Are we to believe that wealth by itself has this kind of power?
Another ugly facet of FPU is the wildly optimistic picture Ramsey paints in his descriptions of saving and investing. By taking 12% as the average return on investments, he implies that extreme wealth is a normal result of saving just a little. For example, one table shows that a person would accumulate over $20,000,000 if he invested the cost of his lunch instead of going out to eat. This rather unreal scenario, however, is based on never going out to eat for lunch over a 60-year span (between ages 16 and 76) and earning 12% interest for those 60 years. Ramsey fails to take into consideration the cost of making one’s own lunch, which while minimal in comparison to the $8 a day he allots in the illustration, would still cut into his profit considerably. In another example he compares buying a new car with buying a clunker, but doesn’t consider the added expense of repairs a used car would necessitate.
One last charge of ugliness. FPU is nothing more than brilliant marketing, with a dazzling set, cool graphics and carefully designed elements to make the viewer feel good. Almost none of Ramsey’s material is original; it is merely a collection of financial wisdom packaged for a 21st century video-trained audience. I was flipping through an old Reader’s Digest magazine from April 1998 and found an article entitled “How to Plan for Your Financial Future” by Richard Miniter. Everything of value I learned in thirteen weeks of attending FPU I found in this article. As I said, there is not much original in FPU, just the glitz and glamour.
Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.