The Common Good

How Financial Guru Dave Ramsey Missed the Mark

I love Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace coursework. It put our family on stable financial footing years ago, and Amy and I never fight about financial matters any more. We find plenty of other things to fight about, but that’s a different post, I suppose.

 Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock
Junk food tends to be more readily available than fresh produce in areas where poor people live. Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

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Ramsey has come under fire recently for a list of “Rich People Habits” he posted on his blog. The list was compiled by Tom Corley at a site called RichHabitsInstitute.com, which is intended to track what people of means do differently in daily life than the rest of us (aside from brush their teeth with platinum-bristled brushes, since that one’s a given).

On the one hand, I’ll agree that observing a cohort of people you want to emulate and learning from their habits makes a lot of sense, but I can see why Ramsey and Corley have caught so much heat for comparing habits of “poor people” with those of the wealthy.

There are two problems that I see. First, though Ramsey tends to be an advocate for the poor with regard to pushing back against usury lending and the like, he draws many false correlations between the habits listed below and the fact that folks who practice them are in poverty. In fact, in a recent defense of the post, Ramsey reiterated this point, writing, “This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow.”

The other concern the list raises for me is that it appears to be blind to the inherent privilege linked to the habits, as if all people had equal access to such practices and resources. Not so, Dave. Below I’ve shared several of the 20 habits on the original list (which can be found here), followed by my thoughts on where they fall short.

• Seventy percent of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day; 97 percent of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day; 23 percent of wealthy gamble. 52 percent of poor people gamble.

Junk food tends to be less expensive than fresh produce and organic options. It also takes less time to prepare, which is important for so many working poor who have children while also working multiple jobs. And this doesn’t even address the issue of food deserts, the term for the concentration of crappy food options (and the marketing that goes with it) in depressed communities, often with no healthy options within easy access.

As for the gambling bit, things like the lottery and bingo, which are two of the most popular types, are also marketed heavily and most accessible in poor communities. Oh, and though the poor may gamble a few dollars on a scratch ticket, the average gambling budget for a trip to Vegas is closer to $1,000.

• Eighty percent of wealthy are focused on accomplishing some single goal. Only 12 percent of the poor do this.

It is a luxury to be able to focus on future goals. It tends to mean you’re not as focused on day-to-day survival. You also probably receive much more conditioning in a middle- to upper-income family to think about the future, and the media also tell you this is what you should do. But if you and your kids are hungry, cold or at risk of missing rent, it’s hard to plan and daydream.

• Seventy-six percent of wealthy exercise aerobically four days a week; 23 percent of poor do this.

Yes, and most people who do this do so at a gym or on equipment they keep at home, both of which cost money. Yes, poorer people could simply take a jog, but in higher density urban areas this presents multiple challenges, not to mention the many working poor families who don’t get home until after dark. Rich people tend to have more flexible time to exercise, especially if they have people helping with their domestic chores like yard maintenance, fixing a broken-down car, cooking, cleaning or laundry.

• Sixty-three percent of wealthy listen to audio books during commute to work vs. 5 percent of poor people.

To listen to audio books you must have the actual audio books (which cost money), a media player to play them on (which costs money), and the uninterrupted time to listen (a luxury of those who ride to work alone). Yes, you can rent some audio books from a library, but you have to be able to get there and still need a player. Not quite as simple as my downloading it to my phone from iTunes.

• Seventy-nine percent of wealthy network five hours or more each month vs. 16 percent of poor.

The wealthy also are the ones who are actively invited to participate in such things as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce. Why? Because they have more to offer others in attendance. They also have the time off of work more often to go to such things (try explaining to your Walmart manager that you need an hour off to go to your Rotary luncheon) and transportation to get there. Such networking groups also usually charge dues and even make you pay extra for meals, expect you to donate to their charitable causes, etc. Privilege, privilege, privilege.

You get the idea. Many of the stats have to do with spending more time reading, both alone and to our children. And yes, this has been empirically proven to make a huge impact on children’s development and future success. But having worked at a Catholic Charities organization in economically challenged, Pueblo, Colo., we found there that many families had no books in the home.

First, they weren’t raised with it as a value in their home of origin. Second, they didn’t have the cash to buy new books, and often they lacked the time and transportation to get themselves and their kids to the library. So one of our most popular programs was placing a new children’s book in their homes once a month. Kids and parents both loved it.

So Dave, if this is a great concern of yours, I’d suggest committing a significant portion of your own wealth to such a program for the poor you want to help.

I don’t want to make excuses for anyone. We all can, at some points in our lives, transcend our circumstances and achieve amazing things. But to presume both that the proverbial playing field is level for all players, and also to draw the false correlation between all of these habits leading to wealth-making, rather than seeing how so many of them are byproducts of existing wealth, is myopic, privileged and fairly offensive.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners featured writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Photo: Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

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