Dave Ramsey scrunching up his face in pain at a caller's foolishness

My latest habit while under COVID lockdown is to marathon YouTube clips from The Dave Ramsey Show.

It’s true. Each clip is equal parts entertaining and enlightening. Dave Ramsey, financial guru, takes phone calls from people facing money problems and offers his simple but direct advice. Many times the caller’s issue is out-of-control debt, but other times it’s something juicier, such as the discovery of a spouse’s secret credit card.

The Dave Ramsey Show gives me enjoyment similar to what I get from watching Dr. Phil, 90 Day Fiancé, or My 600-lb Life. The level of personal drama aired out in the open is about the same as any reality TV drama, but the lessons about personal finance and responsible spending feel much more personally applicable than the lessons from a show about eating dry wall or squeezing cysts.

Fortunately, when I click on a video with a title like “Fiancé Has $200,000 of Debt!!! What Should I Do?” it’s not because I relate to the situation but because I want to get Dave’s take on it. “Beans and rice, rice and beans?” I ask myself aloud when I hear a caller’s story.

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to put you on beans and rice.”

After a while, it’s easy to guess how Dave will respond to any caller who calls in with a particularly outrageous debt: sell the car, don’t step foot inside a restaurant unless you work there, and get rid of so much in your house that your kids’ll wonder if they’re next!

One of Dave’s signatures is his response to “Hi Dave, how are you doing?” As if by instinct, Dave always responds, “Better than I deserve.” I always found that odd. Like what, does he think he deserves to do poorly? Perhaps Dave explains his casual self-loathing in one of his bestselling books, wherein I assume he tells the full story of how he became wealthy, lost it all, and then built it back again. I’ve heard all about Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace, but I prefer to receive Dave’s wisdom while he lays into some poor caller who bought yet another truck he couldn’t afford. “You’d better get your freaking butt in gear, mister!”

The duality of man.

Dave Ramsey represents an ever-dwindling number of onscreen, Evangelical boomers who can still be counted on to give generally sound—but more importantly, self-assured—financial and ethical advice. Cut up your credit cards, avoid debt as much as possible, don’t trust that the government will ever adequately meet your needs… Dave’s advice is far from mainstream, as he would surely be the first to admit.

I have to respectfully disagree with Dave’s take on bitcoin (“internet funny money”); from listening to the way he speaks of it and other cryptocurrencies, it’s my opinion, at least, that he doesn’t understand it. That’s fine—Dave understands other commonsense things that surprisingly few others seem to, such as the importance of living below one’s means or getting married before buying a house with your partner.

“$200,000? Good Lord! Which one of you is the doctor and which one is the lawyer?”

Dave’s admittedly one-size-fits-all “7 baby steps” method for eliminating debt would probably not be the first choice of a well-credentialed, capital-E “Expert” who might (perhaps even correctly) point out that mathematically it makes more sense to pay off the highest-interest debt first, rather than simply the debt with the smallest balance. But what Dave’s advice might lack in 100% optimized quantitative rigor, it more than makes up for in down-to-Earth, good old fashioned common sense. Even the Harvard Business Review had to concede that clearing off debts, no matter how small they are at first, has a noticeable effect on motivating someone to continue paying back what they owe.

Whenever one of Dave’s fatherly tongue-lashings risks becoming too demoralizing, he’ll interject with a chuckle or an assurance along the lines of “I’m only doing this because I want you to win.” No one is told their life is over. No one is denied their humanity. There are no “stupid people,” only “people who did stupid things.” It’s a message of redemption, decency, and hope.

And of beans and rice.