Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps: The Better Version
“Dave Ramsey – that guy is extreme, man! He wants you to sell your extra cars and pay off your leases and stuff…”
As a personal finance blogger who isn’t always open about the fact that he is a personal finance blogger to new acquaintances, I occasionally come across gems like this about personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman being extreme.
The result is that I’ve almost entirely bitten my tongue in half.
Of course, even my loyal readers think I’m a bit extreme at times. I once received an unintended “reply” to one of my email updates instead of a “forward”, where the sender made the comment,
“You might find this email (and his website) interesting. This is a 20-something yr. old guy who writes a lot of good articles. I will have to admit he does over-do the cheap-skate business sometimes…”
There we go again with that cheapskate name-calling. Seriously though, one of my prouder moments as a personal finance blogger.
But this post isn’t about me, it’s about the de-facto face of personal finance, Dave Ramsey. Speaking of that face…awwww… look at it! Isn’t he cute?! A little scruff, sport jacket, the hip bendy, frame-less professor glasses, and a smile squint so hearty that it begets an instant man-crush… snap out of it, Miller!!!
Who is Dave Ramsey?
If you’re not yet familiar with Dave Ramsey, where have you been?
He has a syndicated radio show on over 500 stations, a plethora of books, a TV show on Fox Business, Sean-Connery good looks, and all kinds of high priced online courses and seminars that you can find out more about at his popular website, Daveramsey.com.
He’s made millions preaching his 7 baby steps. So many millions, in fact, it allowed him to buy this 13,307 square foot compound, valued at around $10 million – twice that of the home of his neighbor, LeAnn Rimes. His 1,454 square foot garage is bigger than my entire home.
Best part? His reported $1,285 monthly electric bill almost matches the combined TOTAL living expenses for my wife and I. An environmental steward, he is not.
Dave and I have a bit of a history (I’ve written about him once and he has no idea who I am). The fifth post ever on 20somethingfinance (and one of the most popular to this day) was a disagreement with Dave Ramsey’s view on credit cards, which I think is short-sighted and actually a bit extreme.
But his very popular 7 baby-steps? Extreme, they are not.
Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps
Just about everything Dave Ramsey preaches comes down to his 7 baby steps.
So, I thought I’d highlight each of the mega personal finance icon’s steps and my slightly/vastly more extreme versions (and in my opinion, more universal and enhanced versions).
First, here’s an overview of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps:
- Establish a $1,000 Emergency Fund for Immediate Emergencies
- Pay Off all Debt Using the Debt Snowball
- 3 to 6 Months of Expenses in Savings
- Invest 15% of Household Income into Roth IRA’s and Pre-Tax Retirement
- College Funding for Children
- Pay Off Home Early
- Build Wealth and Give
While I can think of a lot worse plans than this, you must remember this when it comes to Dave Ramsey – his incredible success with middle America is largely driven by his acceptability and appeal to the masses.
That would be fine, if you consider yourself average and want to stay there. The average U.S. personal savings rate is 5% and average net worth for heads of household under age 35 is $3,662, for the record.
Of course, if you’re going to buy $10M homes like Dave Ramsey, or heck, maybe just settle for financial independence and a tiny home that’s paid off, you’re going to have to do better than average.
Here’s my take on each of Ramsey’s baby steps and how you can do a little bit better.
1. Establish a $1,000 Emergency Fund for Immediate Emergencies
I agree that establishing an emergency fund should be priority #1. $1,000 is very low, however. Most major auto repairs will cost you more than that. Any reasonably set home insurance deductible will cost you more than that. The goal is to avoid debt or running out of money when emergency strikes.
#3 calls for an expansion of that emergency fund, but I’d plan on having $3,000 in emergency savings before moving on to #2.
2. Pay Off all Debt Using the Debt Snowball
If you’re not sure what the “debt snowball” is, Ramsey suggests paying off your smallest debts first, regardless of interest rate. His reasoning is stated as this, “The point of the debt snowball is simply this: You need some quick wins in order to stay pumped up about getting out of debt!”
I’m a numbers guy. Unless we’re talking about a huge difference in debt balances (i.e. $500 and $20,000), I think it makes the most sense to pay off your highest interest debts first. Figure out the maximum you can put towards your debts and put it all towards the highest interest debt. After that debt is paid off, go to the second highest interest debt, and so on. This will allow you to save money on debt interest EVERY MONTH until you are completely paid off.
3. 3 to 6 Months of Expenses in Savings
3 to 6 months is sooooooo pre-financial crisis. 44% of unemployed Americans (as of May, 2012) were at 27 weeks and over in unemployment duration. That’s almost half over the 6-month mark. 12 months should be the new standard for emergency funds, with 6 months being the absolute minimum.
Dave goes on to say, “Keep these savings in a money market account. Remember, this stash of money is not an investment”. I completely disagree. Invest those funds in something conservative like a bond ETF (bonus points if you make it a commission-free ETF) so that inflation doesn’t eat at your balance. If the market tanks and your balance drops below 9 months, look at it as a buy opportunity, and replenish it. If the market goes up, you’ve just increased your emergency fund.
4. Invest 15% of Household Income into Roth IRA’s and Pre-Tax Retirement
Ugh. This is the perfect example of over-simplifying with what sounds like a solid rule and making it a general rule for everyone, to their detriment. And, it is often one of the biggest problems with personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey.
Dave does not mention 401K’s at all in any of his 7 baby steps. Why would you put any money into a Roth IRA unless you’ve first completely absorbed your employers 401K match? That makes no sense. That is free money you are leaving on the table.
Get your employer’s full match, then put as much as you can into a Roth IRA, then put as much as you can into your employer’s Roth or traditional 401K, up to the maximum 401K contribution.
5. College Funding for Children
Dave doesn’t get in to specifics on how much you should save for college, what percentage of your kids college you should pay for, or any other particulars. It’s just assumed that you should save for your kids college (because everyone goes to college) and that you should pay for it.
I’ll call this one incomplete. My personal view is that college isn’t right for everyone. And for those who it is a good fit for, they should pay at least half to learn personal responsibility.
6. Pay Off Home
More assumptions. Not everyone should own a home. If you do, paying it off is a great thing (if interest rates are modest or high). And should this step come after funding your children’s college? Doing so increases the amount of interest you’ve paid significantly.
7. Build Wealth and Give
OK. Making money and giving it? Who can argue with that?
That smile won me over, I guess.
Dave Ramsey Baby Steps Discussion:
- What do you think of Dave Ramsey?
- What do you think of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps?
- How would you improve on his (or my) baby steps?