These are the 7 steps Dave Ramsey followers really need

Opinion

Ramsey’s tenets sound pretty good … until you actually look at his math. (AP Photo/Josh Anderson,File) Ramsey’s tenets sound pretty good … until you actually look at his math. (AP Photo/Josh Anderson,File)

It’s no secret that many financial professionals don’t agree with much of the advice Dave Ramsey gives. This is because his financial assumptions are often false. Yes, he’s entertaining, but truly helpful … not always.

About a year and a half ago, Ramsey used Twitter to lash out at several financial professionals who had been chastising his investing advice. He tweeted:

@ScottTruhlar @BasonAsset @behaviorgap @CarolynMcC// I help more people in 10 min. than all of you combined in your ENTIRE lives #stophating

— Dave Ramsey (@DaveRamsey) June 1, 2013

These comments strike me to the core. Many financial professionals help more people in the course of their career than Dave Ramsey ever will. So this column is for you, the thousands of financial professionals who strap on your boots (boots sounds tougher than nice leather oxford shoes), and spend their days, nights, sometimes their weekends helping everyday Americans struggling with poor spending and savings habits. Every month, I will dissect a piece of Ramsey’s financial advice and hold him accountable to providing sound financial principals instead of idealistic fallacies. If the pen is actually mightier than the sword, then, Sir Dave, I challenge you to a duel of math and wit. 

l7 baby steps to getting out of debt

Let’s start at the beginning. On his website, Ramsey lists “7 baby steps to getting out of debt.” These steps are the cornerstone to his popular book Total Money Makeover. Like so much of his advice, they sound good until you dig in and challenge the assumptions.

There are savers and spenders in this world. Ramsonites are inherently spenders. If they were savers they wouldn’t need his seven-step system. Spending is an addictive habit, which leads to less and less contentment as time goes by. Other addiction counseling services have found it takes 12 steps to recovery, not seven, but I digress. The table below outlines Dave’s seven steps, and what I believe they should be:

1. Save $1,000 emergency fund

1. Save $5,000 emergency fund

2. Pay off debt using the Debt Snowball

2. Give

3. Save 3-6 month’s worth of expenses

3. Save 3-6 month’s worth of expenses

4. Invest 15% of gross earnings

4. Equally pay off debt using Debt Snowball and invest until debt is eliminated and investing 15% of gross wages.

5. College funding for children

5. Personal decision (pros/cons)

6. Pay off home early

6. Good idea unless close to retirement and using liquid retirement assets

7. Build wealth and give

7. Give MORE!


Now, let’s go through these step by step to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses.

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Step one: Save $1,000 for an emergency fund. Ramsey calls for this $1,000 emergency fund to pay for “… those unexpected events in life that you can’t plan for: the loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, a faulty car transmission, and the list goes on and on. It’s not a matter of if these events will happen; it’s simply a matter of when they will happen.” 

This is a good first step, considering that you can’t save $1,000 before you’ve saved $10 or $100. However, what does $1,000 really prepare you for? By Ramsey’s definition the loss of a job — but if you’re making $12 per hour, then you’ve managed to save a whopping 2 weeks’ worth of wages (cut it in half for a dual earning household). How far will $1,000 go towards an unexpected pregnancy or a faulty car transmission? Dave, when was the last time you paid attention to the actual costs for these sorts of expenses? I’ve got good insurance, yet our last child was still over $3,000 in out of pocket expenses. (And let’s not forget the fact that giving birth typically translates into time off from work, which isn’t always paid.)

This step starts with a few dollars but needs to continue to at least $5,000. Five thousand dollars can help protect families from unexpected life events. One thousand dollars doesn’t come close.

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Step two: Pay down debt using the Debt Snowball. Ramsey’s rational is this: If you target the smallest debts first and ignore the ones with the highest interest rates then you’ll be encouraged by the psychological effect of lowering the total number of open accounts. He goes on to recommend that we re-allocate the funds used to pay off each card to the next smallest debt that you owe, so that over time your payments become larger.

Common sense tells us this is a good idea, just like common sense tells us driving faster to an appointment will get us there more quickly … unless of course you happen to go past a police officer. But ask yourself this: Is paying down debt the same as saving? No. Paying down debt is spending your money in a different way. Spenders have debt because they’re spenders.  Spending down debt is not the same as saving. As we pay down debt it relieves stress, but it does NOT teach us how to save. What happens if you follow Mr. Ramsey’s advice and suddenly lose your job? Great, you have $1,000 saved and you’ve made extra payments on your Macy’s credit card — remember, the debt snowfall rule says target lowest balances first which would most likely be retail store cards, not universal credit cards or auto loans — but you have no job and no money. Don’t worry, though; you can go buy a nice new Chaps blazer for your job interview.

Step two should be to give. You might be thinking that giving prior to paying down debt only further prolongs a debt-ridden life. It doesn’t, and here’s why. First, at this point you’ve created a reasonable safety net of $5,000. Second, gifting — or tithing, as some call it — is fundamental to becoming a saver. Giving is voluntary; paying down debt is not. As a voluntary practice, it takes discipline to habitually do this each and every month. If you have the discipline to gift every month then you’ve created a lifestyle change. The discipline of gifting is the same as the discipline of saving. Gifting at step two helps yourself and those around you. 

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Step three: Save 3–6 months’ worth of expenses. I agree with Dave here. I review too many financial plans where people only have a month or so in cash or cash equivalents, with the rest of their assets invested. I always ask, “What would you do in an emergency?” They usually respond with something like, “We’ll put it on the credit card.” While I understand they have the assets available to liquidate after the fact to pay the card balance back off, it’s still more conservative to have this amount of expenses stashed away in the bank. If you’re like me, you’ll even keep this fund partially in cash.

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Step four: Invest 15 percent of household income AFTER debts are paid.

I heartily disagree here. Investing and paying down debt should occur simultaneously because, again, you only learn how to save by SAVING and continuing to save. While I’m not advocating debt is good or leveraging is appropriate, I am suggesting that habits are often lost if not continued. Think about the number of New Year’s resolutions to eat and drink healthier that are broken during the Super Bowl weekend and never adhered to again. Don’t stop saving. Instead, invest and pay down debt.

Continuing with step four, Ramsey says to use commission-based investing and to work with an “investing advisor.” While I don’t want to go into great detail on this now, it’s important to note that there’s no such thing as an investing advisor. I guess if you’re not a licensed advisor or an insurance agent, you can make up any title you want. Notice how “investing advisor” sounds very close to “investment advisor;” in fact, Google “investing advisor” and you’ll only get results for “investment advisor.” Ramsey intentionally uses a similar term, since investment advisors are held to a fiduciary standard, whereas investing advisors (who I can only assume are stockbrokers/financial advisors considering the commission structure) are held to a suitability standard as well as the Ramsey standard (#YesI’mHating).

Ramsey calls his legion of investing advisors ELPs, or endorsed local providers. Wonder why he doesn’t believe in a fee-based model? Consider Rule 206(4)-1(a)(1) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. (If you don’t recall the specifics, don’t worry. Next month’s column will use facts and math to prove why ELPs can only work in a commission structure.)

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Step five: College funding for children. I’m not going to argue about college funding. That’s a choice for each individual to make, and there are good points for each side. Ramsey thinks parents should pay for college, and that’s fine. I think kids will appreciate college more with every one of their own dollars that goes towards it. Additionally, there are practical considerations at stake. If a parent has three children and they don’t start saving until the parent has reached age 30, then they’ve only got 12 years to recoup/save for these expenses per child (36 years until retirement divided by three). On the other hand, each child probably has 40+ years using the same retirement age. But to each their own on this step. I’ve met some people who take great pride in the fact they were able to help their children through school and their kids graduated with no student loans. I don’t think there’s a right answer here.

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Step six: Pay off the mortgage. Eliminate the biggest debt most people have … it makes sense, right? This should help individuals need less income in retirement. Again Ramsey almost got it right but missed a very important point. Retirement is about income, not assets. You must have assets to have income, you say? Wrong. Social Security is not an asset, is it? It’s only income.  Think about it this way. Many of the people whom I serve would have a very nice retirement with $2,000,000 in assets — unless $1,950,000 is tied up in their home. If that’s the case, then they’re broke. But good news: They’d still have completed Ramsey’s steps 1-6 (assuming Social Security and $50,000 covers 3–6 months’ worth of expenses). 

Here’s an example of when step six doesn’t make sense. Last year I helped a husband and wife, one still working and the other retired, but both taking Social Security. They had previously followed the advice of an advisor who I can’t say for certain was an ELP but his plan certainly stunk of one. He had them refinance their home to a 10-year mortgage so they’d pay less interest and get the house paid off in their lifetimes. In order to cover this larger monthly mortgage payment they had to do two things. The husband had to continue to work and they had to withdraw money from their retirement savings each month. We did some simple forecasting using reasonable rates of return based on a Morningstar report and found that, yes, they would get their house paid for in full by their early 70s. At that time, they’d have a $350k house free and clear and about $100k in retirement savings. In the process, they converted a liquid asset (retirement savings) to pay off an illiquid asset (home equity).

I asked if they ever want to leave their home. They replied no, especially not after working the extra years to pay it off.  Yet somewhere between their late 70s and early 80s, they’d have to sell or tap into their equity. They weren’t concerned with leaving the house to the kids mortgage-free. They needed to take care of themselves first. The only thing this plan accomplished was more years of working and a debt-free inheritance for the kids … oh, the good life. 

Paying off the mortgage can be a noble thing, but it can be absolutely the wrong thing if you’re in retirement or close to retirement. Tying up most of your assets into the place you love and never want to leave is just as harmful as having too much debt. You may have no debt, but you also have no money. 

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Step seven: Build wealth and give. I agree with Dave that we should give back. The more we get, the more we should give. Again, I think this should happen much earlier because when you learn how to gift you learn how to save. Gifting should really be step two, as I previously stated.  This is especially true when you consider that Ramsey preaches much of his advice is faith-based. How on earth can he suggest to give only once someone has received so much? By the time he suggests you give, you’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars for emergencies, you’ve paid off all your debt, you are investing 15 percent of gross wages, you’ve paid or are paying for your children’s college, and you’ve either paid your house off or are close to it. Only then are you supposed to give. In other words, don’t go without so you can help someone else first. Take care of steps 1–6, then learn the word generosity.

This was just the beginning. Today we debunked several of the 7 baby steps, which are core to Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover.” While the advice wasn’t entirely bad, there are certainly some glaring deficiencies.

I like math — strike that, I love math — and I don’t particularly care for opinions. Remember, this column is for you. If you notice any particular financial advice from Dave you’d like to refute, please email my editor at nmorford@summitpronets.com. I appreciate your help holding America’s favorite finance coach accountable to good, sound financial advice and not just the entertaining garble that most won’t take the time to validate.   

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