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Generally good advice, if you're really in a financial hole
on February 3, 2010
"The Total Money Makeover" by Dave Ramsey, is the 3rd Edition of his popular book outlining personal finance advice and his "Baby Steps" method of righting your financial ship. I'm assuming that if you actively searched here under his name, you already know who Ramsey is - he and Suze Orman are probably the two most prominent personal-finance show hosts in the US. They have somewhat different styles - both can be pretty blunt to their callers when needed, but Ramsey tends to lean toward advising people to take more-drastic measures to get their debt down (`beans and rice, rice and beans' and his mantra of `Live like no one else, so you can someday Live like no one else') as opposed to Orman's "People first, then money, then things". She's a bit more empathic, but maybe he's a bit more hard-line because, at least from what I've seen (and I've watched both for several years), his audience generally seems to get themselves into bigger financial messes in the first place. If you think you've got it bad, tune into his show (on Fox Business Channel on cable) and you'll hear some REALLY bad stories of situations people have gotten themselves into, that will probably make you feel better about your own finances. Many of the `true stories' contained in the book are of people who got themselves in trouble by: 1) getting married/divorced too young, to/from someone who was as equally inept at handling money; 2) having lots of kids at a very early age (they're expensive, big surprise); and 3) appearing to have no education beyond high school, or majoring in something that is unlikely to yield a living income.
That said, the Ramsey book is a somewhat easy read - it runs around 250 pages, but the print is actually larger than I'd have expected, and the language is pretty colloquial, so it reads pretty quickly and is easy for even the financial newbie to grasp (I read it in around 4 or 5 sittings). The book is a codification of a lot of the advice you'll hear on his show on an ongoing basis if you watch regularly. His strong points are that he's no-nonsense in cutting to the bottom line, and debunking commonly-held `myths' of personal finance. If you're a loyal, diligent watcher of the show, though, this book may be redundant if you've been paying close attention, but for new initiates, it's an informative, if limited-in-scope, read that might provide a jumping off point for further reading. If you're totally behind the 8-ball financially, though, by all means get and read the book, because you've got to start somewhere, but if you've got your act together, and are facing more-advanced issues (such as trusts, estate planning, elder care issues, etc), then really you'd be better off reading Orman's books, which are more substantial and confront the more esoteric/complicated issues of personal finance. I've noticed from watching both, that Ramsey seems to specialize in getting people `back to zero and then on the right path' when they've really dug themselves into a hole (i.e. to get out of debt in the first place) - his advice is basically pretty on-the-mark and keeps it simple (if you're not averse to Bible verses sprinkled in there). I am an accountant, and while I can't say I agree with everything he says (he seems a little TOO wrapped up in the `pay cash for everything' mindset, to the point where I think he's not being realistic about effective ways to use credit in today's world, but I also think his recommendation of a 6-month emergency fund is not enough, given today's rotten economy - you really need 9 mos to a year), the bulk of the info he provides is pretty good (such as the "Debt Snowball" method of attacking your debt), if you can do the most important thing in following it: you need to impose self-discipline to break bad-spending habits. His methods require almost crash-financial-diet measures (such as taking on extra jobs, ceasing any and all unnecessary spending to the point of maybe not having much fun, selling your possessions, etc.), but if you can stick to it, it will probably yield results. There are some simple-to-use worksheets in the book, which you can copy and fill out, to start getting the lay of your finances and create a plan to address problems.
I DO have to say, though, that there were at least two ideas in the book that I heartily disagree with, to the point where I think they're maybe outright bad advice: 1) he says that if you're paying down your debt, you should stop contributing to your 401k plan altogether, even if you're being matched 100% up to a certain amount, in the interest of the psychology of paying the debt - this is questionable advice, because the match is free money that probably works out to an earnings rate far in excess of your interest rates on your debt - on the other hand, if you have oppressive debt, you might be better off paying the debt off, so you need to work the math in `real dollars' on that before you leap; and 2) on pgs. 39-40, he basically dismisses the `worth' of a good FICO score (saying it's an "I Love Debt Score"), and says that ideally you should have NO score - that sounds good on paper, but it's simply not workable in real life, as no bank will loan you money without one, for any purpose - and his entire philosophy is predicated on paying cash for everything, which is much easier said than done (unless you get a 15 year mortgage, which he recommends, but surprise - you'll need a high FICO AND down payment for that). Contrary to what he'd have you believe, it IS possible to have a very high FICO without incurring tons of debt. The FICO stance is where Ramsey and Orman diverge markedly (she preaches the virtues of having a high score, earned by prudent use of credit). And i won't even get into the fact that many prospective employers today WILL check your credit score before offering you a job, and jobs aren't easy to get nowadays in this economy. Nuff said.....
So, in my opinion: if you're REALLY in a hole financially and need to right the ship, then get one of Ramsey's books (this one is a good start); if you've got your act together, and have succeeded in getting out of dire financial straits, check out Suze Orman's books.