On a Tuesday afternoon in January, an audibly anxious young man—Chris from Midland, Texas—finds himself live on the air explaining his economic struggles to a perfect stranger. Chris, 28, is a truck driver and the family breadwinner; his wife is a stay-at-home mom. They have accumulated $14,600 in credit card debt and borrowed twice that much from their retirement account. They owe $59,000 on an SUV that is worth $46,000. His annual salary of $60,000 can’t buy a shovel big enough to dig out of the hole. Feeling strangled by the financial stress, Chris is turning to someone for help: Dave Ramsey, whose radio show a friend has recommended.
“The car is gone. It’s insanity. It’s absolutely nuts. It owns you,” Ramsey says in his cigar-smoky southern drawl. With millions of people listening, he orders Chris to sell the SUV and the couple’s other vehicle—a paid-off pickup truck with a value of $15,000. Then he instructs Chris to take out a $5,000 loan for a clunker to drive while paying down other debts. “You guys are in such bad shape that I’m scared for ya,” Ramsey says. But, he adds encouragingly, all is not lost. “When I was your age, I was going broke and going bankrupt. And I had to start completely over, with little babies, and my marriage was hanging on by a thread. And I was so scared, I couldn’t breathe,” Ramsey says. “You can clean this up, dude. And I can show you how, if you’ll do what I teach you to do.”
Ramsey might not be a household name in Washington or New York, cities where the chattering classes worry about their blue-chip stocks and wonder whether “economic anxiety” in the heartland really propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. But for the past 25 years—and especially in the decade since the recession—this Tennessee realtor-turned-talk-radio-host has spent his time considering nothing but economic anxiety, walking tens of thousands of callers through a nightmarish gauntlet of debts and defaults, job layoffs and pay cuts, underwater mortgages and punishing student loans.
Beloved for his down-home manner and direct, time-to-take-your-medicine approach, Ramsey is the pro bono financial adviser to millions of Americans who otherwise could never afford one. Privately owned and self-syndicated, “The Dave Ramsey Show” is carried by more than 600 stations and heard by more than 13 million listeners each week. Despite that scale, the relationships he forges with listeners can be intensely personal; people travel from every corner of the country, and occasionally from around the globe, to visit Ramsey in person and thank him for changing their lives. He makes himself readily accessible, hosting three hours of his eponymous call-in program every weekday from a glass-encased studio on the first floor of the Ramsey Solutions headquarters here in suburban Nashville.
When Ramsey listens to America talking, what does he hear? Two hours before he goes on air that Tuesday afternoon, I ask Ramsey about that term, “economic anxiety.” He hesitates. “If you define economic anxiety as, ‘Do I think I can get out of my mess?’ … there is probably more of that out there now than when I started doing this 25 years ago,” Ramsey says. “And it’s kind of disturbing.”