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‘A friend in our group said, “This feels like a cult.”’
Writer Kel Schulze on their experience with Financial Peace University and managing money in the midst of trauma.
Less than 6 million people live in Wisconsin (and less than 4 million of them outside of the Milwaukee area) — so spotting a fellow Wisconsinite on the internet is a real treat. Doubly so when they’re big personal finance nerds like I am. So you can imagine I was downright ecstatic when Substack putin my feed.
The newsletter’s writer,, is a queer, nonbinary, pansexual parent of two who lives along the shore of Lake Michigan in eastern Wisconsin. They write about their journey of gathering “heaps of debt” while experiencing postpartum depression (and, you’ll see, loads of concurrent traumas) in and around 2020. They especially focus on the intersections of disability, queerness and mental illness in relation to personal finance.
Kel briefly mentioned their and their spouse’s experience with Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University in this post, and I couldn’t resist diving deeper.
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Dana: Buying a house is often a catalyst for people (especially couples) to add more discipline to their finances, and you mentioned that that was the case for you and your spouse. How did buying a house impact your finances, and why do you think it lit a fire under you to make a change in your relationship with money?
Kel Schulze: When my spouse and I signed the closing papers on my golden birthday in 2018, it definitely changed how we approached our personal finances. It made us rush to save up money for those “in case” things and emergencies that happen when you own a house. It changed our relationship with money with changing our values. Which things meant more to us at that moment versus the long-term goals we wanted to reach? Did things that we spent money on align with that? I understand that everyone has those moments, but somehow ours came when we bought our house.
How did you come across Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace University, and what attracted you to these teachings at first? What was it like doing the course alongside friends, and how did the connection to your church community affect the experience?
Before my spouse and I were married, I was living with a roommate in an apartment 30 minutes north of Milwaukee in one of the wealthiest counties in Wisconsin. They gave me a copy of Total Money Makeover to help me begin digging into my personal finances. Then our friends told us in 2019 that they signed up for a Financial Peace University course that was being taught at one of the local churches, and they asked if we could do it together for accountability (which we did).
It was great doing it and discussing things that we were feeling about money and our debt openly, but another friend in our group said, “This feels like a cult.” (Oh, did he pin that right.) It was interesting to see a CFA join us in the course to see if he could recommend it to his clients to help them along their journey, as well.
A friend in our group said, “This feels like a cult.” (Oh, did he pin that right.)
What about Dave Ramsey’s teachings made sense for you, and what didn't resonate with you? You said you later found The Financial Diet by Chelsea Fagan. What about her teachings resonated with you more?
Dave Ramsey’s teachings are a mixed bag; some things are completely ridiculous. The thing that made sense to me was saving $1,000 for emergencies. When you’ve never had that much in savings, it truly is a lot to manage and reliably vet what is a true emergency and what feels like an emergency when stressed.
One baby step that gave me a “Oh, that doesn’t make sense” moment was when Dave says to stop investing into your job’s retirement account. That didn’t make sense to me, as most people won’t miss $20 to $40 every pay period, and also that’s leaving money on the table with an employer match. That employer match is free money that will compound and grow. It just didn’t make sense to me.
Upon finding Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet, I began to realize how much personal finance advice is really just bad advice or generic and doesn’t touch on the complexities of life. Chelsea has really touched on quite a few hard-hitting topics with guests like how poverty can affect how you manage your money, BMI and plus-size tax, and how varying levels of disability can affect your personal finances. She doesn’t shy away from things and branches out constantly to include things you wouldn’t think cross into the Venn diagram with personal finance. It’s really refreshing watching her talk about subjects that also matter to me (my stepdad, Mom and father in law are disabled in varying forms).
While you were following Dave Ramsey’s baby steps to tackle your debt, your family ran into an “extreme time” — pregnancy, the pandemic, a battle with postpartum depression and losing your dad to COVID-19 all in a short span. What did that stress, grief and trauma mean for your relationship with money? Is there room for a set of rules like the baby steps in that experience?
When I was pregnant in late spring of 2019, I was loosely budgeting. What I mean by that is that I knew what our income and expenses were, so I didn’t need to be as stringent with my budget. The wheels fell off of that, though, when I experienced a traumatic birth. I fell face first into a depressive episode that lasted over a year. At nine months postpartum I lost my dad to COVID-19 and was lucky enough to be with him after my sister and I asked the nurses to remove him from life support.
The approach needs to change entirely from being stringent to “what can I do that serves my needs where I’m at today?”
Those experiences completely derailed our finances because of the inability to do basic things. There isn’t room for a set of rules like the baby steps; they are already stringent and hard for the most mentally strong. When you’re dealing with processing trauma, grief and a major (almost life-ending) postpartum depression… to survive even one of these experiences and even attempt to stick to the baby steps would cause anyone anxiety, but to have all three hit so closely together? The approach needs to change entirely from being stringent to “what can I do that serves my needs where I’m at today?” That can look like outsourcing housework, buying more takeout and quick-to-prepare foods, and hiring a nanny. I will always say that if it keeps you alive another day, it’s worth it to spend money on even if it temporarily sets you back in your finances and financial goals.
You ultimately said you wish you would have found other financial guidance before coming across Dave Ramsey and that his teaching digs its heels into capitalism. What do you think families like yours are looking for when they seek financial guidance, and what are the benefits and harms of Dave Ramsey often being the first perspective they encounter?
When we started, we wanted guidance with a starting point, and we didn’t really know any other big names besides Dave and other faith-based ones (looking at you, Suze). I would’ve preferred someone who took a no-nonsense approach but did it with facts to back up why these things work instead of just saying “it’s apparently worked for millions of other people.” That’s not a practical way of looking at things when you don’t offer up a check-in on former students and how they’re doing one year or even three years after you’ve taken the class.
While there are many good things about Dave’s program — like forming a sense of community (#debtfreecommunity is huge across all social media platforms), having accountability while taking the class, and having a starting point for how to analyze your finances — the shame and the shame tactics he uses on his show and within the class can further worsen how people feel about their relationship to money. Having a worse relationship with money after paying for a course defeats the purpose of that course.
Besides yours, what personal finance newsletter or blog do you recommend most and why? Who is it best for?
Elyse of Savvy Sagittarius has become a close Instagram friend over the last year. She and I talk often about trauma in relation to money and managing finances. So many of her blog posts were written during the early phases of her debt payoff and offer insightful tips that aren’t copy-and-paste. She has even talked about how to make a budget for a business on her blog, which I feel not many people have touched on. Elyse’s blogs are perfect for people just starting out who want a clear breakdown on what others have done to be successful with their personal finances and focus on inconsistent income because of the job you hold (like the service industry).
Instead of talking about the weather, what do you wish strangers would ask you about when you meet on the street?
This is tough for me. I’ve got two questions (and answers): What’s a book I can’t stop thinking about that I’ve read over the last year? (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.) And a song that describes your mental health journey? (“Orange Juice” by Noah Kahan.)
💡 Are you a financial educator, coach or advisor ready to have a more expansive conversation about money with your clients? My Budget-Free Fundamentals series gives you everything you need to help participants gain a fresh perspective on their relationship with money.
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Image courtesy of Kel Schulze