Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by acronyms? Lately I am thinking a lot about THM, FPU, and YEC. The last of these, Young Earth Creationism, is from the series of blog posts I am in the midst of on the whole creation/evolution debate. The first two are books I am or have been reading. I did a couple of posts earlier on THM, Trim Healthy Mama (see here and here). My general take on it is that I bet it helps in a lot of cases but there are aspects of it, particularly its use of Scripture, which bother me.
I bring this up again because I feel much the same way about my third acronym, FPU. FPU is Financial Peace University. It is a finance curriculum that we are going through at church these days. There is a series of nine or so videos that we watch together and follow-up with discussion questions, and then there is a book, Complete Guide to Money, by FPU’s guru, Dave Ramsey, and also a workbook and a really cool pencil-case. The goal of FPU is to teach Christians how to manage their money wisely. Just as with THM, I am sure Dave Ramsey’s programs have helped a lot of people. But also as with THM, I am not at all convinced that his is the only way to go about it, nor does his use of Scripture sit well with me.
I came across this two post series by Mark Farnham at Sharper Iron which pretty much sums up what I think and feel about FPU. If you are, or if your church is, at all considering using FPU, I highly recommend reading Farnham’s posts first. I wish I had. He has been through the whole class, which I have not yet, and says it all much better than I could. But in case you are lazy about clicking links, I will sum up my three areas of concern. They are: the economics of it all, Dave himself, and the theology behind it.
I’ll start with the toughest part to write, my impressions of Mr. Ramsey himself. I have not met the man; I have only read most of his book and watched two of his lectures. Farnham uses words like “cocky.” I might not go that far. What I would say is that I find that he stereotypes a lot (men do this, women do that) and that he has certain fixed ideas which are not true (every marriage has a nerd and a free-spirit). If I did meet him, I imagine that he would not be the sort to listen well to others because he seems to have these ideas which are so set in his mind that there is no room for contrary ones. I find his style too slick and manipulative for my tastes, For example, the first lecture in his series begins with him telling a long story about his family’s own financial struggles. He uses their old kitchen table as a prop and talks about all the things which happened around it. But it all comes off as very rehearsed to me and designed to produce certain emotions in his audience (and the studio audience “aww”s on cue every time) and thereby to suck them into the next bit where he sells them on his financial approach. It all comes across as very salesman like to me (I have friends who are salesmen, but I hope you know what I mean by this). I guess what it boils down to is this: he is trying to produce emotions in his audience nd thereby get them to where he wants them to be rather than selling his approach on its merit. It gave me a similar feeling to what I experienced when a man came to our front door recently and tried to sell me cleaners for my home.
My feelings about Mr. Ramsey and his approach are subjective; they are based on my own likes and dislikes. But the financial aspect is a little more concrete. Farnham in his posts mentions something which has bothered my husband (who is in finance) as well — Ramsey overstates the return one can get on their investment. He cites the number 12% which is apparently unrealistic. The FPU strategy seems to work for a lot of people who need help, but it is not the golden solution for everyone. My husband, economist that he is, is bothered by the fact that Ramsey has people pay down their smallest, rather than their highest interest debts first. The latter makes more numerical sense. Ramsey chooses to start with smaller debts for physiological reasons which is fine, but it should be noted that this is not the only way to approach the problem. He is also a big advocate of paying off one’s mortgage once other debts are paid and some savings are accumulated. It sounds good, but our own choice hs been to invest that money in higher yielding things rather than to pay down the mortgage right away. My point here is not that Ramsey’s advice is bad, but that we shouldn’t view it as the only right way. I feel about it the same way as I felt about THM’s diet advice. It is not bad advice, but it is not the only way. It is also not entirely new. Both base their system on what has worked for them and on some calculations (in the case of FPU) or studies (in the case of THM) which are valid. They combine ideas to come up with a system that can work. And, what I find most disturbing, they both then put a Christian veneer on it.
This brings me to the last area which bothers me, the theology behind it all. The truth is, there is little theology behind it all. In the case of FPU there is a financial approach behind it all and then the Bible stuff is tacked on. There are some principles which are biblical at the base of it. In THM it was “don’t avoid whole food groups which God has given us.” In FPU there is “don’t go into unnecessary debt” and “be a good steward of what God has given you.”
For FPU it is obvious that the BIble but is unnecessary because there are secular versions out there that can be used by businesses and the like. Farnham has a lot to say on the gospel, or lack thereof, in FPU. Since I have not gotten far enough in the lectures to see all of what he has, I will refer you once again to his posts. Here is what I have noticed so far. In his book, he does not use just one version of the BIble. This is not necessarily bad but it is a bad sign that he might be just looking for what fits his theory rather than fitting his theory to the Word of God. He also tends to use paraphrases such as the Living Bible. In his second lecture, he makes a valid point, that we can often tell what people value by seeing what they spend their money on. But he uses a verse to bolster this which says just the opposite. The verse is Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The point of this verse is that your heart will follow your treasure. Note that the treasure is already there, the heart will follow. It is not that what Ramsey is saying is wrong, but that he miss uses the verse, a pet-peeve of mine.
In the first lecture, Ramsey quotes some statistics. I may not get the numbers just right but it was something like 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck but only 55% of them are worried about it. Ramsey basically mocks the other 15% and says they are idiots. But doesn’t the Bible tell us not to worry? To cast out cares on Jesus and that He will care for us? Since when is anxiety something we should be urging on people? Which brings me to the biggest problem. I agree with Ramsey that we need to be good stewards of what God gives us, that it is not wrong to be wealthy, and that as God blesses us we should give. But I think he misses whole huge chunks of the Bible that relate directly to our possessions and how we should view and use them. Here are some examples:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,and all these things will be added to you.“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34; ESV)
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:11-13)
Should we provide for our families? Yes. Should we invest what God gives us rather than just burying it in the ground (or in a low-yield checking account)? Yes. But we are also told to trust God to provide for us and to be content with little if that is what God calls us to. And throughout history He has called many people to be self-sacrificial and to give up opportunities for wealth, to willing chose poverty in order to serve hIm in hard circumstances. Both these things are part of Christianity. Ramsey seems to focus only on one side of what the Bible has to say about money and wealth and, as whenever we emphasize one part of God’s Word over another, he ends up lopsided. This sort of lopsidedness always distorts the gospel message.
So is Financial Peace University worthwhile? For some people, it probably is. If you are already a strong Christian who struggles with money issues and has never learned how to mange it well, then FPU can probably help you. If you don’t already have some issues, FPU is not likely to help too much. And if you are not Christian or not a strong Christian, I would be hesitant to recommend FPU. It may help you financially, but I think it also has the potential to shift one’s focus in unhealthy ways. And in the end a person’s spiritual state is way more important than their net worth.