I love Dave Ramsey, I do. I listen to his radio show, I watch his videos, I read his works.
Here’s the thing about him, though: He has this way of just calling you “stupid” for getting into debt or otherwise making poor financial choices. He’s not wrong, either; the choices are often dumber than picking your nose with a crayon. But if I’ve learned one thing through many, many years of trauma processing and Brené Brown fangirling, it’s that shame is the enemy of true and lasting growth. Sure, shame might cause panicked, short-term attempts at change. But if you’re not looking at the underlying issues that led you into the pit, you’re just slapping on a blindfold and walking in circles around it.
If you read my Facing the Money Monster post (and you should), you’ll see that step one–that’s the step BEFORE Dave’s “Baby Step 1”–is discovering and acknowledging where you are. And you didn’t get where you are by just being “stupid!” Stupid’s a piece of the pie, for sure, but it’s not the whole bake sale.
Since I can’t analyze your financial-mess pie, let’s look at mine. What led to me going full stupid? For starters, I grew up dirt poor in a well-to-do town. When I say “dirt poor,” I mean surviving on food stamps and welfare checks to the tune of about $600 a month. I mean, stealing school supplies, pawning VHS tapes to buy a cheeseburger, washing underwear in the bathroom sink because I didn’t have quarters for the laundromat, Dirt.Poor.
Fake news! I just said I lived in a country-club town! Yes, but we were houseguests of my grandparents, or we rented rooms in other people’s basements. There was precisely one apartment complex in my town when I was a kid, and we couldn’t afford to live there. Not by a long shot. For the most part, my schoolmates weren’t even trying to be mean about it; it simply was. You live in this town, therefore you wear the Brands, you take the Vacations, you pack the Cool Lunch (this subsidized hot lunch kid is still kinda triggered by the sight of a Lunchable).
So when I finally started making my own money (babysitting at 12, got my first “real job” at 16), I spent it. I spent it because, for the first time in my entire life, I HAD THE MONEY. I didn’t have to steal pens–I could BUY them, and not just the cheap white Bics, either–gimme those pretty colors and the rubberized grip! Ever see a 14 year-old counting out $5 bills for an orchestra seat at a touring production of A Chorus Line? I would still argue that this was money well-spent, what a show.
I grew up learning how to stretch a dollar, scam a dollar, and fake a dollar, so I had no trouble whatsoever getting rid of the ones that I earned. Saving, however…oof. My mother never even had a bank account until I was 16 and had already moved out. “Saving” was something rich people did, with all the money they had left over after they bought whatever they wanted. Imagine being wealthy enough to have money and NOT spend it, amirite??
Thus, as my earning increased, so did my spending. Monthly payments became my bestie. I could have whatever I wanted–and keep up with anyone!–so long as I could squeak out the monthly payment. Nobody was washing undies in the sink on my watch, I could afford those washer/dryer payments! TV? Payments! Couch? Payments! Car? Payments! And I told myself a fantastic narrative: I’m not actually in debt, because these aren’t credit cards. They’re just convenient monthly installments, plus interest, which is TOTALLY DIFFERENT than debt.
Yeah, I tried, but again, rich people stuff. We were not living in some crazy stratosphere. When I left the workforce to stay home with babies, I was bringing home a cool $32k a year. We had a modest wedding that I DIY’d before Pinterest was even a thing. We never had a honeymoon, and still, after nearly 15 years of marriage, have never been on a real vacation, just the two of us. We had a pretty modest home. We have always driven used Toyotas. We don’t spend the way I picture “people living on credit” would live. We were living paycheck to paycheck, payment to payment.
Turns out, you don’t have to be living large to be living above your means.
My husband didn’t grow up super-wealthy, but he also didn’t know The Struggle. Like, at all. He had a job in high school, but only because he wanted to buy a $2000 guitar (which he still loves more than me and at least 2/4 of our kids). He managed to get a handsome degree from a private college with no debt. He had assistance with nearly everything as he was getting himself launched. And please do not mistake this as a dig at his privilege; he was extremely fortunate, and that rising tide lifted the hell out of my boat, so I thank heaven for it. But he didn’t learn the hard way for a looooong time.
He did not understand budgeting or delayed gratification. Like, at all. I understood budgeting and living frugally, but my head was easily turned because I grew up with deprivation, social shame, and an intense desire to just have what everybody else has. In my mind, not having a thing that I perceived as a “need” triggered aaaaaall the old feelings of worthlessness and othering. From night-and-day backgrounds, the end result was the same: We were very vulnerable to the promise of credit: Have that shiny thing TODAY, worry about it tomorrow!
I’m still working to undo my past trauma regarding finances. I’m using some of my old frugal tricks (not stealing): practicing saying no, making do, buying used. My worth as a human being has nothing to do with my second-hand furniture. I refuse to, as Dave says, “spend money I don’t have to buy things I don’t need to impress people I don’t like.” (Not you, though; I like you.) I use social media as exposure therapy. All your farmhouse-chic seasonal decor and unstained couches just put more fire in my belly. I’ll get there…when I can pay cash for it. And as bonus, my kids will be old enough that they won’t trash it all as quickly. It’s a good season of life to be living lean.
Maybe your money story isn’t as dramatic as mine (gosh, I hope not, anyway). But if you’re living on credit, there’s a story behind it. I’d bet my snowball on that. Is there someone you’re trying to impress? Is there a story you’re telling yourself to justify living above your means? Are you repeating the toxic financial habits that were modeled for you? Are you afraid that living within your means diminishes your worth? What is it that has you sabotaging yourself?