I’ve done a good job of sharing my disdain for Dave Ramsey’s popularization of a method of getting out of debt that caters to unmotivated individuals, the “Debt Snowball” method. That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with his principles or his intentions. I just think he, as one of the most popular “gurus” in personal finance, has to cater to the masses. It makes sense for him to profess a methodology that is simple reaches people on an emotional level. Real financial planners who work one-on-one with individuals to get out of debt and formulate a lifetime financial plan would be able to supply better options.
Dave Ramsey does offer something I like, his “Baby Steps.” These are seven suggestions that, when followed sequentially, will do wonders for helping people struggling with their finances to take ownership of the money in their life and start moving towards a more prosperous future.
Here are Dave’s suggestions, verbatim:
- $1,000 to start an emergency fund
- Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball
- 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings
- Invest 15% of household income in Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
- College funding for children
- Pay off home early
- Build wealth and give!
In general, I like this plan of action. These “baby steps” help someone ease into a pattern of new, financially responsible behavior, with small mini-goals which when taken in full view go a long way to help ensure financial stability.
These “baby steps” are designed to appeal to a large mass of people. This is not advice based on any one individual’s real situation, so it’s fair to apply some customization and perhaps even improvements. Here are a few small criticisms.
Is $1,000 enough or too much for an emergency fund base? Dave Ramsey suggests shoring up a $1,000 cash cushion before beginning to pay off debt. Although $1,000 is a finite number of dollars, its value has a different meaning to different people or to different families. A family with an income of $250,000 a year and $1,000,000 in debt may not consider $1,000 to be much of anything, while a family earning $20,000 per year and $100,000 in debt might find the saving of $1,000 to be a struggle. So what’s a better option? I would suggest that this base savings, what is needed to lay the groundwork before embarking on the great debt reduction journey, should be one months’ expenses, whatever they happen to be. That sets a high enough starting goal.
The “Debt Snowball” method is not so great. Despite its popularity and proven track record with a million dollar business marketing this method, I’d like to see more people give a real try to the Debt Avalanche. They’ll save money and time in the long run if they are intrinsically motivated. I’ve discussed this at length before.
Is it too soon to worry about college funding for children? I’ve heard experts suggest that parents should make sure their retirement is fully funded before worrying about funding education for their children. I don’t think saving 15% of household income, unless begun at a young age, will get most parents to a secure retirement, but that depends on the family’s needs at that later date. There are too many variables to predict that with any accuracy. The reason most experts suggest this is because you can borrow money for college, but you can’t borrow money (as easily or inexpensively) for retirement.
I strongly believe that parents have a responsibility to ensure that the best educational opportunities are available to their children, but with the prices of tuition increasingly well beyond the rate of inflation, I’m not sure how well that philosophy will work in the future.
Why pay off the mortgage early? Dave Ramsey is strongly against holding all forms of debt. Mostly, I agree. If the mortgage rate is low enough, and you have the fortitude, risk tolerance, and availability to invest the funds you would otherwise use to accelerate your mortgage payment in an asset allocation designed with a long-term time horizon, it may make more sense to pay just your minimum to the mortgage. But I won’t stop anyone who wants to pay off their mortgage early, even if they might end up with a lower net worth than if they had invested. The market is unreliable, but when paying off a mortgage early, you’re guaranteed to “earn” the rate of interest you’re being charged. It’s not a precise way of figuring the math, but knowing that you don’t have to pay interest that was originally included in your amortization is good.
Thanks go to Dave Ramsey for popularizing good general advice.
Updated September 17, 2011 and originally published August 25, 2008.