Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Financial freedom

My parents loaned me a set of 13 CDs by a Christian financial counselor named Dave Ramsey, which I listened to in my car over the last several weeks. The CDs are audio recordings of Ramsey's course of lectures that he calls "Financial Peace University."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised--there were occasional references to God and Bible verses, but they were relatively few and tended to be ones that gave sensible advice. It was only the last CD, on charitable giving, which emphasized tithing to a church over other forms of charitable giving, that I found more objectionable than sound. (There were also two bonus CDs, one with samples from Ramsey's radio show, in which I agreed with virtually all of the advice he gave to listeners, and another giving his personal testimony and a "come to Jesus" call that I gave up listening to after about the first 15 minutes.)

The first 12 CDs I give pretty high marks to. Each CD covered a single topic:
1. "Super Savers": how to save money, build an emergency fund, the value of cash purchases.
2. "Cash Flow Planning": how to budget.
3. "Relating With Money": how to communicate about money in a relationship and with your children.
4. "Buying Only Big, Big Bargains": how to find good deals and negotiate on price.
5. "Dumping Debt Part 1": facts about credit cards and how to get out of debt.
6. "Dumping Debt Part 2": more on that subject.
7. "Understanding Investments": some basic information about stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
8. "Understanding Insurance": some basic information about insurance offerings and which ones are a ripoff.
9. "Retirement & College Planning": 401Ks, Roth 401Ks, IRAs, SEPs, Coverdell ESAs, etc.
10. "Buyer Beware": understanding some marketing and sales tactics and how to avoid being pressured by them.
11. "Real Estate & Mortgages": some basics about buying and selling a home, types of mortgages (apparently recorded before the recent popularity of some more creative mortgages), and refinancing.
12. "Careers & Extra Jobs": how to find a job you love, when it makes sense to seek extra income to get out of a problem.
13. "Collection Practices & Credit Bureaus": some basics on collections, how to clean up your credit report, how to get out of bad debt messes when you can't afford to pay all your bills.

Some of the basic messages of Ramsey's plan are to start by building an emergency savings of $1,000, cut up all your credit cards and budget every dollar of income, get all non-mortgage debt paid off, build up savings of 3-6 months of expenses, and start investing 15% of annual gross income in mutual funds (maximizing tax-preferred options). He's very anti-credit card and anti-debt. I agree with the latter (except for a mortgage); the former I don't personally agree with for myself, but I think it's good advice for anyone who doesn't have the discipline to be a credit card "freeloader" (pay off all credit card balances monthly).

He also advises never buying a house with anything but a 15-year fixed rate mortgage, and never with a monthly payment greater than 25% of your monthly take-home pay, never spending more than 20% of your annual income on cars (and always paying cash, never going into debt--and that means buying used).

The average household has about $10,000 in credit card debt, lots of people have been buying their homes with interest-only adjustable rate mortgages where they can barely afford the interest-only payments (or even just the negative amortization option), and many people have been pulling equity out of their homes to pay for consumer goods, and buying homes with interest-only adjustable rate mortgages (some with negative amortization options), and these people are heading for disaster. Ramsey's advice is pretty sound.

UPDATE (January 23, 2007): The Simple Dollar has a good summary of Dave Ramsey's program.

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