We Got Halfway Through Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps

Photo credit: monpetitchouphotography.com, CC BY 2.0.

In 2014, a shouting bald man entered my life.

For $113.95, my husband and I bought our seats, workbook, CDs, and other goodies for a Dave Ramsey nine-week Financial Peace University (FPU) video lecture series hosted at a local church.

Did we have a hundred dollars to spend on a financial class? Not really. We had recently become a one-income family and, despite a debt-free college degree each and little other debt beyond a modest mortgage, money tension crackled between us weekly, sometimes daily. I’d pay bills and wring my hands, and my husband would look for a fourth interesting way to prepare beans and rice. Even replacing his worn-out wooden wedding band with a $30 silver Walmart trinket turned tense when he was suddenly wearing half a week’s grocery cash.

We needed a plan, a strategy. We needed help. Many prayers were uttered. A few months later we were sitting at Ramsey’s feet, studying the “Seven Baby Steps” that would become the track sheet of our post-college years. We embraced the Financial Peace curriculum because it embodied three of our personal family values:

  1. Debt is a trap
  2. We are just managers of money flowing from God
  3. Giving away money regularly is part of a healthy financial lifestyle.

As you choose a financial strategy, be it a program, group, app, or book, consider the values in play and whether they correspond with the foundation of your household. As FPU met our criteria, we ran hard after the following milestones:

Step 1: Save a $1,000 “beginner” emergency fund.

Okay, check. Through endless rice and bean dinners, we had managed to keep about that much in the bank for the tedious and unexpected events, like having to get my car towed. Just starting out, and one step was done. It felt good. It felt like traction.

Step 2: Pay off all debts, smallest to largest, except the mortgage.

This one was also quick. My husband wrapped up a culinary school certificate, and through yard sales and major scrounging we paid off his remaining tuition bill around the same time that we finished the nine-week Ramsey class. Done.

Step 3: Save up a full emergency fund, defined as 3–6 months worth of basic living expenses.

We personally defined this as monthly house bills + basic monthly groceries + enough gas for minimal driving in a month, multiplied by six (months). If you don’t want to get that technical, $10,000 is a good, round number to shoot for. Too intimidating? Crunch your numbers.

Remember, this is for catastrophic times, like an unexpected job loss, so you will be living “smaller” than usual. You can reach this goal a little sooner by saving for six months of your cheapest living expenses—but it still takes a while to get there. For us, Step 3 took over a year with aggressive saving (ie, about 20 percent of our net pay banked) while we both worked full-time and had no children. 

Then we had a baby, and I quit my full-time job.

Step 4: Invest 15 percent of household income into retirement.

Crisp, neat budgets of the past gave way to heavily revised financial sketches, crinkled and wrinkled by emergency ice cream and diaper runs. Retirement? Retirement felt as far away as Mars. It was hard to even look at the number 15 when we had just let something like an extra $15,000/year of net pay walk out of our budget. In the background, my infant daughter began to wail. (Bounce, soothe, repeat.) We settled for the 6 percent pre-tax retirement contribution mandated at my husband’s university job and realized that our momentum had run out. What we’d saved so far would have to be our new, long-term resting place.

 

Ramsey’s first three steps have objective, concrete finish lines: $1,000 banked, all non-mortgage debts paid, and your predetermined full emergency fund saved. Step 6 is paying off your mortgage, another clear-cut event. But most of the later steps I classify as “dreamer” steps; their execution is shaped less by dollar-sign milestones than by personal goals and dreams that vary from household to household—and the dreaming is part of the work. You can throw money at personal retirement (Step 4), at children’s college savings (Step 5), and, once debt-free, at whatever you want (Step 7), but you have to know what you want to determine what amounts you need to save, and sometimes the picture takes some concentrated imagining to come into focus.

Here’s what I see now: I see a toddler who is fiercely curious and enamored of books, so educational choices will be impacting our finances long before college, and maybe K-12 schooling should have its own savings account. I see myself and my husband as old-timers in a modest house that is easy to maintain and easier still to leave for weeks at a time as we rekindle the soul-brightening world travel we did as young adults. I see us using our money and our actions to leave people and places in better states than we found them. Those are the broad strokes. The outer flourishes will further focus (or alter) as we go, but it’s a lot more than I saw a year ago. There is a lot of time for dreaming when you’re lulling a baby to sleep every night.

So I salute you in your half-doneness. Your disarray. Your baby puke blues. Your car wreck consternation. Your 401(k) frets. Whether you are a Mustachian or YNABer or follow the Baby Steps, something planned or unplanned will shape-shift your financial momentum if it hasn’t already. Don’t waste this interruption. Don’t be intimidated by the shouting bald man or whomever you take your financial cues from. They probably understand.

Dave Ramsey’s financial star rose fast when he was a speculative twenty-something. Founded on risky maneuvers, his star exploded, his life collapsed, and he spent years crawling back from the black hole of bankruptcy. As an older, wiser man, he learned to marvel at Aesop’s famous fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” where a steady, plodding tortoise wins the foot race against a proud hare more concerned initially with showing off than properly completing his task.

I’m also older and wiser than I was when I started Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps—and after having an actual baby I appreciate the importance of living in the moment as well as saving for the future. I know that my family and I can continue to move steadily towards our dreams, though the hares of the world are zipping by, buying large houses, maxing out their 401(k)s, and seemingly check-marking all their financial goals. Follow thoughtfully behind long enough and you may see and avoid some of their mistakes made in haste. And if you need me, I’ll be reading “The Tortoise and the Hare” to my daughter.

Zoe Hickerson is a writer, former financial aid counselor, and lifelong resident of the Dirty South where she reimagines communities through the lens of a stint in Central America.

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