Dave Ramsey uses gruff love to lead others out of debt
Ordinary financial advisers can’t get Minnesotans to pay $19 to $149 to hear them speak. Most are lucky to attract people to a free meal at a local steakhouse.
Dave Ramsey fills megachurch auditoriums to hear a message of financial tough love.
He gladly — though often gruffly — helps ordinary folks ignored by the financial services industry because they don’t have a five-figure nest egg to invest. Recognizing how guilt and shame hinder people from confronting money problems, Ramsey ushered in a new model for assisting younger adults, people who have made mistakes and anyone tired of living paycheck to paycheck.
“Normalizing financial stress is a good starting point,” Ramsey said in an interview during a visit to Minnesota, his first, last fall. “The power of community does that.”
Before a capacity crowd of 2,300 at Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes, Minn., Ramsey hauled a heavy chain to illustrate the burden of carrying debt. Another 500 people at a Woodbury church watched the performance on a live video feed. Next month, two of his acolytes will offer another form of lifestyle help, parenting advice, at the mammoth Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.
After more than 20 years, Ramsey, 58, has become one of the most influential voices on personal finance in the country. From his base near Nashville, he hosts a daily three-hour talk show that airs on 600 radio stations and anchors a podcast that has 10 million downloads per month. He has written or co-written about a dozen books that collectively have sold 11 million copies.
“Dave is helping people who would generally never meet with a planner because they don’t think they have enough assets,” said Grant Meyer, a financial planner in Bloomington, Minn., who for a time was in a nationwide network of planners affiliated with Ramsey. Indeed, only about 20 percent of Americans use a financial planner.
As Ramsey ran on to the auditorium stage in Lino Lakes last October, he received a standing ovation in a megachurch filled with a theater-quality lighting and sound system, video cameras and ushers wearing orange T-shirts that read “millennials don’t make excuses” on the front.
FALLING IN DEBT
He talked about getting a “Ph.D. in dumb” because he went from being a hotshot real estate flipper to being bankrupt at age 28. Instead of throwing out investment jargon, he growled and yelled about how a person in debt feels like a gazelle being chased by a cheetah.
His voice softened after he pointed to a person he recognized in the audience. “You got yourself out of debt, not me,” he said. “How do you get out of debt? You do things at the speed of cash. You sell stuff. You amputate the Tahoe.”
The audience loved it. Several let out “Amen.”
His website offers books, YouTube videos and nine-week programs for wiping out debt and starting a financial plan.
With the help of evangelical churches and community organizations, Ramsey has built more live events on topics that include money and marriage, business leadership, business and women, and generosity.
Mark Sullivan of Waconia, Minn., who attended Ramsey’s live event last fall and went through his Financial Peace University classes in 2001, said Ramsey’s appeal is broader than a typical financial planner. “He’s not selling you as much as teaching you,” he said. “He’s like a personal coach who’s training you to do it yourself.”
Mark Bullert of White Bear Lake, Minn., who became a certified instructor in Ramsey’s financial program, said his appeal grew with younger adults who are skeptical of traditional financial planners. “They saw their parents go to paid dinners from financial companies and live through a tumultuous 2008 and 2009,” Bullert said. “With Dave, there’s a one-time fee to attend and no financial commitment.”
FORMULA THAT WORKS
Ramsey, however, sticks to the formula that most financial planners start with for most people: Eliminate debt and create an emergency fund.
He veers from the pack with some of his investment advice, however. For years, he recommended that investors simply buy stocks or all-stock funds and ignore bonds that most planners recommend as a hedge against declines in stocks. Today, he’s eased up on that idea and recommends some diversification.
Ruth Hayden, a financial educator in St. Paul, Minn., said she gets concerned when people get so enamored of Ramsey after the relative simplicity of debt elimination that they quickly make a leap with his investment advice. “I really believe in investment professionals,” she said. “Whether you go to someone who will handhold you or you’re going to Schwab or something in between, most can’t do it on their own.”
Ramsey himself recommends that people use financial advisers when they’re ready. That belief anchors one of his most consistent pieces of advice: that investors should buy investments with fees rather than ones without because, for most individuals, the payoff is in the long run, not trying to time the market’s ups and downs.
“Data says that you have a much higher chance of staying in a fund if you have an adviser in your corner,” Ramsey said in the interview. “They can talk you off the ledge when the market goes down.”
Jessica and Ethan Arky of Richfield, Minn., discovered Ramsey when they wanted a second opinion about buying a new $30,000 vehicle. The couple, who are in their mid-30s, watched Ramsey’s videos online and decided to keep the same vehicle Jessica had when she was in college. After watching Ramsey at the Lino Lakes church, they said they still like him but feel they’re on the right path to invest on their own.
“We took on a lot of financial education ourselves,” said Ethan. “We see Dave as a modern-day financial planner for millennials. He starts you off and then maybe you branch off on your own to robo-advising or index funds. We’ve talked to a financial adviser and a tax preparer, too.”
Ramsey, meanwhile, keeps expanding the scope of his business. On his radio show and website, he invites people who have been successful at bringing down their debt to sign up for a cruise in the Caribbean.
And at the Lino Lakes event, firms directly or indirectly affiliated with him staffed tables outside the auditorium to offer products or services as diverse as gutter repair and timeshare dissolution. There were mortgage and insurance providers, too.
Meyer, the financial planner in Bloomington, Minn., said he separated from the Ramsey network when he thought it became too sales-focused. Now at Fure Financial, he’s aligned with a firm that hires fiduciary, fee-based planners who make money by charging hourly fees for advice instead of charging commissions on products.
“Dave is great at blocking and tackling the debt, but when people have more sophisticated issues with investing, people should look at other options,” Meyer said.