Budget Culture and the Dave Ramseyfication of Money
How financial "experts" ruined our relationship with money
AHP Note: This week, I’m thrilled to publish the latest in the ongoing Culture Study series on money and budgeting (for the rest of us). Unlike previous editions, which have focused on reader Q&A, this edition, from personal finance writer Dana Miranda, focuses on a particularly noxious ideology about money: where it comes from, how we internalize it, and how it haunts us for the rest of our adult lives.
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I grew up in a working-class Midwestern family, in a town so working-class I didn’t realize the “rich” families were barely lower middle class. None of the adults had gone to college except the teachers, the (one) doctor and the (one) lawyer.
To borrow from Julia Roberts in my favorite rom-com, we were jello. And, just as Julia emphasizes that “crème brûlée can never be jello,” we knew we could never be crème brûlée
Our financial reality was work. “When you’re not born rich,” my stepdad would remind us, “you have to work for a living.” My parents were careful about debt and worked their way into supervisory positions to be slightly more comfortable than their farm-raised parents had been: they made us keep our grades up and go to college so we could be a little better off than they were. But no one ever suggested we might own our own business (as I do) or hold elected office (as one sister does) or earn a master’s degree (as two sisters did) or anything else remarkable. We’d always be jello: we’d work to be less poor, but being rich never crossed our minds.
But Dave Ramsey had set a new tone when we were young — one that would change the path we’d take as adults. With the early iterations of his radio show and financial teachings that began to proliferate in the early ‘90s, he made money less scary for folks literally no one was talking to about money.
Before Ramsey’s call-in talk show (“The Dave Ramsey Show”) and his book (Financial Peace) financial advice was largely for people who were already rich. It went straight to stock picks and skipped what to do if you had credit card debt or lived precariously from paycheck to paycheck — assuming people were in those situations because they didn’t care about financial education. Ramsey began speaking to the people traditional advice ignored (Or, at least, a handpicked group of them — he regularly backs up his financial advice with Bible verses, erecting a clear fence around his target audience.).
For the first time, working-class Southern and Midwestern folks who’d been conditioned not to pursue wealth could indulge in what middle-class Americans had been devouring for decades: the fantasy of being rich. A perpetual belief that a better life is within your grasp if you can just get the money right.
Other budding financial experts saw the need for similar advice that dropped Ramsey’s religious exclusivity, and a new “everyman” niche in personal finance emerged around the turn of the century. It ballooned in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the popularity of personal blogs, where so-called everyday millionaires could chronicle their journeys out of debt and into the middle class. As millennials came of age, we had access to a world of financial advice by and for people like us — who told us jello could become crème brûlée.
All we had to do was follow the right rules.
This was the world I entered as a personal finance writer in 2015. At that point, I knew nothing about managing money: I’d been earning $12,000 a year as a freelance writer; I was riddled with debt and my credit score was around the low 500s. But my ability to tell a couple’s debt-payoff story was enough to get me in the door. I could write about finance, because it wasn’t just finance anymore. Success was no longer about stock picks and IRA tax strategies. Ramsey and his successors put the “personal” into finance so anyone could find success through a new set of rules made just for us, like paying down debt, starting a side hustle and — above all — making a budget.
This promise appealed directly to the work ethic of middle America: You can get rich with steady work and self control. The marriage of personal finance and self improvement — the Rich Dad Poor Dad, Millionaire Next Door, Finish Rich ethos — set a tone for our current dominant paradigm, which I’ve come to call budget culture.
Budget culture is the damaging set of beliefs around money that rewards restriction and deprivation — much like diet culture does for food and bodies — and promotes an unhealthy and fantastical ideal of financial success.
In the same way diet culture is quick to blame health conditions on a person’s weight, or prescribe food restriction as treatment toward the goal of being thin, budget culture sees measures like credit scores and debt as signifiers of financial health, and prescribes spending restrictions as the first step toward wellness — defined, at its core, as being (on the way to becoming) rich.
The simplest problem with this approach is that budgeting, like dieting, doesn’t work. Restriction and deprivation are unsustainable; accurately tracking spending is hard; income fluctuates, and costs don’t operate on a perfect monthly reset. Budgets don’t account for the way lives work, so they’re hard to keep in our lives consistently. But even when people do use them, budgeting doesn’t necessarily fulfill its promises: A 2021 survey by The Penny Hoarder, for example, found that budgeters are just about as likely as non-budgeters to have any amount of debt.
The broader problem with budget culture is its emphasis on individual responsibility and insistence on ignoring the varying levels of access and privilege in our world. It vilifies and oppresses anyone who doesn’t live up to the ideal, regardless of their circumstances. And that ideal is, unsurprisingly, rooted in maleness and whiteness in the way many of our cultural ideals are. Budget culture idealizes and advises for a definition of richness that relies on things like power at work, freedom from domestic labor, well-rounded education, debt elimination, homeownership, credit, and other things moneyed, straight white men tend to have access to more readily than anyone else. We equate these things with being good with money because we exist in a system designed — by people with money trying to keep it — to favor them, not because they’re inherent signs of more or less responsible stewardship of money.
The system isn’t designed for upward mobility, but financial experts dangle the fantasy of being rich in front of us to keep us spinning our wheels with budgets and debt-free screams, then have plenty of ways to blame us when their prescribed paths to wealth become inaccessible. Ramsey’s famous “Baby Steps” might start simple and practical for anyone in his audience, but they quickly escalate into investing 15% of your income, paying off your mortgage early and building generational wealth — substantial feats for a lot of people.
The budget culture blueprint has been copied over and over by financial experts who think they’ve pinpointed the problem keeping us all poor, from lattes to avocado toast to mindset mistakes. But they all really have just one secret to getting rich quickly: aggressive investing. And you can invest as aggressively as you want with $1 or $5 at a time — tons of apps will help you do it! — but you won’t quit your day job that way. The only sure way to make money is to have money, but no personal finance expert wants to admit their wealth is built on anything other than a solid foundation of hard work and self-control — not their degrees in finance, Ivy League educations, middle class upbringings… or their ability to sell you a fantasy.
I fell in love with financial education quickly after joining the ranks of personal finance media, because I love teaching this topic and witnessing wins as much as any expert. In my time on the beat, I’ve seen some millennial leaders in personal finance shrink away from the most blatant miscalculations of budget culture. We’re careful not to place individual blame. We’ve swapped out the obsession with having all the money for just getting our financial act together in the face of never-ending burnout.
But all we’re really doing is peddling the same worn promises wrapped in a veneer of language around “wellness” instead of “being rich.” The brass tacks of advice for financial wellness still emphasize restriction and individual responsibility, and “getting our act together” is still predicated on the fantasy of being rich. Because actually countering budget culture is a tall order, for individuals and society.
Getting comfortable not knowing the “right” answers.
Changing not just how you talk about money to others, but how you use money in your life.
Pay transparency — with your friends, communities and colleagues, and in job descriptions.
Seeing and acknowledging your privilege.
Rethinking how we compensate for every kind of labor.
Framing taxes as sharing privilege, not impeding personal wealth.
Admitting net worth is an imaginary number.
Creatively supporting people with financial need and protecting them from the tyranny of credit reports.
Reckoning with the fact that the American Dream of homeownership relies on hoarding stolen wealth.
It’s… a lot.
I used to tell people I was grateful to work in personal finance, because what I’ve learned has helped me get my own money under control. I have a small IRA, a comfortable $20,000 savings cushion, automatic bill payment, a credit card and a 740 credit score. But I’ve stopped giving financial literacy the credit, because I know the real reason my finances are “healthier” now: I have more money. I took a job with a salary that quadrupled my income, and voila — I became a lot more “responsible” with money.
I didn’t conquer budgeting or eliminate debt with extra fervor. I opened a secured credit card because I had the $200 to spare for a deposit, and my credit score shot up 100 points, opening a ton of doors. My income kept going up, tipping over $100,000 after I went back to freelancing, and my financial anxiety has miraculously vanished.
It’s not just me. The Penny Hoarder survey found that people earning $75,000 a year or more are as likely to keep a budget as not — yet, we know they’re likely to be happier than those with lower incomes.
Budget culture makes money all about you — your actions, responsibilities and mindset. But individual actions can’t overcome persistent pay gaps, generational trauma, systemic oppression and algorithmic bias. No money management method can square rising housing costs with stagnant wages. No amount of self control can make up for the costs of “professionalism” born by everyone who has to fit their hair, dress, gender presentation or family responsibilities into a box to keep their job.
Instead of questioning your mindset and willpower to fix what doesn’t work about your money, question what’s happening around you. Consider your relationship with money as you go through your day. See how the world is or isn’t made for you based on your financial situation. Where do you feel welcomed or not? Do you feel comfortable and safe in your home? Do you feel comfortable in your clothing, on your furniture, using your devices? Are you satisfied with your food? Do you have reliable and safe transportation? Are you living where you want to be and doing what you want to do with your days? Do you feel empowered with choice? Can you care for your children, parents or other loved ones the way you’d like to? Can you attend to your physical and mental health as much as you want to?
Having more money can improve life for a lot of people, so that’s the goal we sell in personal finance. But, as financial educators, we’re missing the point. No one’s basic wellbeing should rely on their ability to count pennies. Yes, we can help you stretch a dollar to avoid eviction or choose a savings plan to stave off poverty in retirement. But those of us who can answer yes to more of the questions above, who aren’t facing imminent financial hurdles, need to offer more than a new brand of budget. Budget culture keeps you striving to improve your own finances so you can improve everything money pays for in your life — you have to become rich to thrive in a world made for people who are rich. Fighting budget culture means remaking the world in a way that lets everyone experience the ease of being “rich,” regardless of the numbers in their bank account.
Dana Miranda is an entrepreneur and Certified Educator in Personal Finance®. She’s written about work and money for publications including Forbes, The New York Times, CNBC, NextAdvisor and a column for Inc. Magazine. She founded the content agency Dana Media to diversify voices in personal finance media. Through their flagship site, Healthy Rich, Dana works with emerging creators to share stories that illuminate the diversity of our relationships with work and money. She doesn’t have a new kind of money management to sell you — she just wants to have a different kind of conversation about money.
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