There’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of Dave Ramsey, and the reason should be familiar: In an era when our Red State-Blue State bifurcation means we can’t agree about anything, we don’t even have pop culture in common anymore. So maybe the easiest way to introduce Ramsey is explain that he’s the finance guru to the Duck Dynasty set, an evangelical version of Suze Orman.
He is also Philly.com’s “business columnist” — though really, more of a personal finance advice columnist.
This probably isn’t a surprise: In order to flesh out and differentiate itself from the Inquirer and Daily News — even while drawing on the reporting that appears in those papers — Philly.com has tapped into other sources of content. Some of them are home-grown bloggers (remember the ill-fated attempt to turn Gov. Corbett into a columnist?) and some of them are syndicated versions of stuff that originates elsewhere. Some, like the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily, are non-partisan. Others, like PA Independent, come from outfits that lean decidedly to the right. Ramsey belongs in the latter group.
And, you know, hooray: If Philly.com’s editors think they’ve spotted a sweet spot in the market by appealing to conservative sensibilities, great. It just makes for a more vibrant discussion.
No, the problem with Ramsey isn’t that he’s a Christian with a conservative fan base. The problem is that sometimes, he gives really lousy advice.
The column that caught my attention ran Saturday on Philly.com. “Dear Dave,” a reader named Tessa inquired, “why do you think debt consolidation is a bad thing?”
If you don’t know, debt consolidation is when you take a couple of outstanding bills — a couple of credit cards, perhaps — and combine them into one, bigger lump. The idea is to get a smaller monthly payment, and if you’re smart, a reduced interest rate.
Which, according to Ramsey, is the problem.
If you get a lower payment and move things around a little bit, you feel like you actually accomplished something. The problem with that is you don't do anything to address the real problem, which is you.
Interest rates aren't your problem, and the number of payments isn't your problem. Your problem is the person you look at in the mirror every morning, Tessa. Until you fix that person and get mad enough at your financial situation and the real cause of it, you'll never make any progress toward getting control of your finances.
Don’t get me wrong: Ramsey then concludes with a generally sound piece of advice: “Trying to borrow your way out of debt is not a good plan!” he tells Tessa.
But here’s the thing: For some debt-holders — and given the rates of debt and savings in this country over the last decade or so, we’ve all been there — interest rates are a problem. The number of payments are a problem. Sometimes, reducing one or both can make it easier to get your finances in order so you can pay off your debts.
You won’t hear that from Ramsey. He may be a finance guru, but he doesn’t want to just help you get out of debt. He wants you to pay — literally in this case — for your sins, to endure a painful penance for being silly enough to go into debt in the first place. The pain isn’t just a means to the end of Ramsey’s program: It’s the whole point.
I checked in with my friend Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a visiting professor at Arkansas State University, who has studied and written about Ramsey, to get her take.
“The Ramsey column you shared was a perfect example of his ‘work,’ which, really, is sometimes so bad as to be tantamount to malpractice,” she said. “Here is the math: If you can refinance at a lower rate, you should do so. Because the job of a financial counselor is to help you save your own money, not to pay unnecessary fees to credit card companies so that you can feel extra pain.”
There are times when it’s better not to consolidate debt, she acknowledged. “But Ramsey wants you to feel how irresponsible you were by locking you into your bad choices,” she said. “I can't imagine another ‘self-help’ model that uses shame in this way.”
That, however, is pretty much the way Ramsey rolls. So beware, Philly.com readers. You may read Ramsey looking for a way to improve your finances. But he’s coming for your soul — and he’s going to make it painful for you.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.