NEW YORK — Journalist and former financial columnist Helaine Olen says the popular gurus of finance who are touted on talk radio, cable news and PBS aren't giving Americans the right advice when it comes to saving money for life's biggest expenses.
Speaking at the New America Foundation last week as part of a panel discussion exploring the financial literacy movement, Olen, author of the book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, mentioned debt consultant Dave Ramsey, whose teachings she asserted might be insufficient at helping Americans' budgets.
Commenting that "everyone in the South has" heard of Ramsey, Olen described his background as that of a "wheeler-dealer real estate guy in Tennessee who goes belly-up in the late-'80s when he's about 26, because of some changes in the tax code."
"He decides, as God as his witness, he's never going to borrow another dime again," Olen continued. "As part of that [vow] he starts sending that message out, and he takes on a radio show and from there an empire is born. He's now on radio five times a week, three hours a day, pretty much in every major market in the country, telling people to not get credit cards, live on cash, pay down their debts and don't buy a home until you can put 20 percent down."
Olen went on to describe the efficacy of Ramsey and other financial experts as "marginal," and added that she takes issue with two of Ramsey's philosophies.
Noting an unnamed academic that she used as a source for her research, Olen explained: "What she found is really interesting. People are devoted to him at first and then they just kind of vanish."
"So people switch to cash and dump their credit cards only to find that what is causing you to go into overdrive is the fact that your healthcare bill is going up at [extreme] rates," said Olen, who believes that Americans' financial problems don't happen because they haven't sufficiently nickle-and-dimed, but occur due to uncontrollable cost-of-living expenses.
To support her point, Olen cited a report which she said shows that from 2013 to 2014 the average cost of hospitalizations have increased by 20 percent. "There's no way you're going to save your way out of that one," she asserted.
Olen also faulted Dave Ramsey's program for lacking any longitudinal studies about its efficacy.
"You ask him for success stories or if he's tracked them, he'll say, 'No, I rely on people to write me.' He has never done a study to see if 10 years later people are out of debt. Everyone who has tried to go in there and figure this out because it's hard comes to the conclusion I did, which is they're really not. They just are good for a year and then it falls apart and they go back into debt."
Olen said she was most distressed because when she tried to find "Dave Ramsey's success stories" she often found people who were either still in debt or had only paid off their loans "because of an inheritance or because they're making a six-figure income."
She then suggested that if Americans were most cognizant of the larger structural problems of the economy, they might realize that their own financial woes were not their own fault, but rather a consequence of forces outside of their control.
"How are you supposed to know if you're going to get fired? How are you supposed to know if somebody's supposed to get sick? I joke in retirement planning that the thing you need to know most is the day you're going to die … as far as I know, none of us know that one," she laughed.
The Christian Post contacted Dave Ramsey for a response, but he declined to comment on this story.