The Debt Slayers
Dave Ramsey is a fast-talking, in-your-face kind of guy whose tough-love guidanceboth in books and over the airwaves from Nashvilleconnects with a lot of Americans. Every few minutes on his three-hour weekday afternoon radio program, callers who recently paid off massive amounts of credit card obligations scream, "I'm debt-free!"
Although he is overtly Christian, Ramsey resonates with a market beyond the evangelical niche: His show is carried on 272 secular stations. In March, cbs television began filming a pilot for a reality series that will follow Ramsey around the country, helping families conquer overwhelming debt and cut the credit umbilical cord.
"I've cried over this stuff, too," says Ramsey, who established a $4 million real estate portfolio by age 26 and lost it four years later. "I've done stupid with zeroes on the end."
This year, some 200,000 people will complete Ramsey's Financial Peace University, a 13-week course that he says enables the average family to pay off $5,300 in debt and save $2,700 in the first 91 days.
"The statistics of pain are getting worse every year," Ramsey told Christianity Today. "We have more people getting behind on credit cards, more people filing bankruptcy, more people in foreclosure right now than we've ever had in this nation."
Remarkably, American consumers are simultaneously earning record income while accumulating record debt. And there is little difference between the amounts that Christians and non-Christians earn, spend, save, charge, or donate to charities.
A result of the growing economic prosperity during the past two decades is the boom in the number of personal financial advisers who counsel Americans on how to eliminate debt and where to invest money.
Christian stores are filled with books and dvds warning of the evils of credit card debt. Christian radio talk show hosts dispense advice to the financially troubled. Churches regularly sponsor financial management seminars. A few dozen congregations have hired stewardship pastors.
Peddling biblically based financial advice has turned into a cottage industry. It's not that the counsel is new or that people haven't heard it before. But the fact remains that Christians are among those who have racked up credit card debt and have no plan for financial accountability. In part, congregations are motivated to promote good stewardship because church giving isn't keeping pace with increased personal wealth. If they're tapped out just keeping up with interest payments on that new suv or boat, Christians aren't enthusiastic about financing a new sanctuary.
The median U.S. home price surged $22,500 last year to $206,600, and some Americans borrowed to the hilt on that increased equity simply to spend extra money on a big-screen television or dream vacation.
The whirlpool of debt
Ramsey, who won't even take credit card orders for his materials, is at one end of the Christian financial counselor spectrum. At the other extreme, and in the minority, is Gary Moore, who believes that most in the Christian money management industry fill churchgoers with irrational fears that hinder congregational giving.
According to CardWeb.com, Americans owed $696.7 billion on credit card loans in 2004, compared to $285.5 billion a decade earlier. In the same span, the average household credit card debt has grown to $9,312 from $4,301. The Federal Reserve reports that last year, consumers overspent their income and, for the first time since the early Great Depression, had a negative personal savings rate: minus 0.5 percent.