The millennial couple were already underwater when they came to Dave Ramsey for help.
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The call into the personal finance guru’s radio program The Ramsey Show, where he fields questions from everyday workers asking for financial advice, came nearly five years ago in September 2018—but has since blown up after Ramsey reposted a clip of it on TikTok this week, amassing over 20 million views.
The newly married couple in Washington, D.C., ages 29 and 32, wanted Ramsey’s advice on how to become debt-free without filing for bankruptcy. At the time, the wife said, they held “probably just under $1 million in debt”: $335,000 in student loans, a $210,000 mortgage, about $136,000 in credit card debt, $44,000 in personal loans, and $35,000 in car loans. While that all totals $760,000, interest means they were likely well on their way to $1 million.
For context, the average total debt per person in America then was $50,090; in 2022, it neared $60,000.
The caller said she has an advanced degree in policy, while her partner has an MBA. They both worked in government and collectively brought home $230,000 a year, she added. “What in the world?” Ramsey responded. “So are you both on this, or [has] just one of you completely lost your mind?”
She explained that she thinks her precarious situation is the result of “making really poor financial decisions,” thinking they’d be able to pay down the debt as they went. “But it just doesn’t happen,” she admitted.
Ramsey has been a well-established personal finance guru for decades with a number of bestselling books under his belt; he’s also become a controversial figure whose advice some consider dubious, and whose ultrareligious biases have been called into question. But even the internet was taken aback by the couple’s situation as much as Ramsey was.
Twitter, where the video has made waves all week, was less than delicate about the situation. “Move into a dingy studio apartment, throw away your credit cards, and never go out for dinner for five years,” one user tweeted on Thursday. “Problem solved.”
“Can we all agree that some type of privilege has to play a role here?!?” one user pointed out. “How does their credit score even stay high enough to accumulate that much debt?!?”
Living the ‘HENRY’ life
The couple, while a wildly extreme case, fit the definition of HENRYs, short for High Earner Not Rich Yet. Fortune’s Shawn Tully coined the term in 2008 to define cohorts who are raking in the big bucks but not saving enough to build wealth. Today, they’re mainly six-figure-earning millennials who feel like they’re living paycheck to paycheck owing to lifestyle creep and a hardened economy.
HENRYs are characterized by their outsize spending on things like vacations, fancy apartments, restaurant meals, and cars, as in the case of the couple. They’re steadfast on their lifestyle, even if it means cutting corners in other areas they don’t deem as important or incurring debt along the way.
But they’re also living in the midst of an affordability crisis that has been brewing since the Great Recession and accelerating since the pandemic hit, ushering in 40-year-high inflation. Raises simply haven’t kept up with the cost of living; in today’s world, the dollar goes less far than it used to, rendering benchmarks like a $100,000 salary and $1 million retirement no longer all that meaningful.
Ramsey put the caller and her husband squarely in the HENRY category.
“I’m getting ready to destroy your life,” Ramsey said. “Because your lifestyle is considerably above your extremely good income, and has been for a period of time. You’ve gotten used to spending like you’re in Congress.”
Ramsey’s advice: no discretionary spending—at all—for three years, while they work to dig themselves out of the hole. He called them out for spending $310,000 annually, and put them on a $30,000 budget. “You’re not going to see the inside of a restaurant unless it’s your extra job. [That’s] how humbling this is going to be.”
The caller mentioned that she and her husband have been living with her parents to ease the transition and renting out her condo to save money; Ramsey encouraged her to just sell it. (Advice now considered slightly ironic, considering that earlier this year, he went on a tear against “lazy” millennials and Gen Zers who blow their money on luxury items while living with their parents.)
Few of the outraged Twitter and TikTok users who have shared the video noted that it came out in 2018. One can only wonder how the couple have fared during the pandemic. The student debt pause and the $2.3 trillion America saved up could have helped them out a bit—but only if they took advantage of such relief.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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