When you pay for something with a credit card, or even a debit card, you can easily spend a few extra dollars here and there. But as Ramsey explained—while waving a handful of hundred-dollar bills to illustrate the point—if you have to actually hand over some of your dwindling cash supply, you tend to ponder every purchase. That impulsive latte buy becomes a little less enjoyable when every time you haul out your wallet, a quavering voice inside your head asks, “You want to send Uncle Abe away?” And sure enough, though we thought we’d budgeted conservatively for just the necessities, we nonetheless finished the month with extra money in every envelope.
It’s also hard to spend cash, because so many people look at you funny when you try. The very first day, I spent almost 20 minutes trying to check out in the “better dresses” section of a department store. The saleslady stared at the hundred-dollar bill in her palm as if I’d just handed her an eel. After a series of plaintive looks at my obviously card-free wallet, she started stabbing at the cash-register keyboard with a sort of bleak despair. To my immense surprise and relief—and clearly, also to hers—the cash drawer eventually opened.
Ramsey calls this “being weird.” The phrase came up over and over again in his five-hour spiel, always punctuated with the same rejoinder: “Normal is broke.” During our first month on the Dave Ramsey program, I was startled to find out how true this is. When I described my project, a really shocking number of people, many of them married professionals with good incomes, confessed that they had no control over their money.
They aren’t much different from most of America. According to a recent survey from CareerBuilder, six of every 10 workers “always” or “usually” live paycheck to paycheck. Affluent, educated people do a little better, but they certainly aren’t immune—three in 10 of those with salaries above $100,000 also report that they’re spending it as fast as they make it.
In fact, in some ways, education makes living above your means easier. In business school, my fellow students and I became big fans of the idea of “consumption smoothing,” as laid out in the work of economic luminaries like Milton Friedman and Laurence Kotlikoff. At least as we read it, the theory told us to do what we wanted, which was to spend money on stuff we didn’t quite need. After all, we’d be making good money when we graduated, so why not borrow a little against that future income to buy a car or go to Cancún?
Ramsey could have told me why not, but I doubt I would have listened; it’s a lesson you can perhaps learn only firsthand. I graduated into the teeth of the 2001 recession $100,000 in debt. My six-figure job offer evaporated when the consulting firm fell on hard times. It took me two years to find a permanent job, and when I did, that job was in journalism, which paid about a third of what I’d been expecting.
Just like me, our nation has experimented with the “educated” overuse of leverage, aka debt. Homeowners who believed that they would have been fools to rent when a mortgage-interest tax deduction was available have poured their savings and their hearts into homes they are now losing to foreclosure. M.B.A.s are shuttering the companies they leveraged to the hilt as they chased tax deductions and higher returns. Even our politicians speak of deficit spending as a sort of investment opportunity. In industries from autos to housing, even as the private sector has retreated to repair its balance sheets, the government has dangled money it has borrowed in front of potential buyers to tempt them to further purchases.