Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Appreciation for Clark Howard

Mother nature has interrupted my last four weeks of school with a snow day each week. Today was the fourth day that I have been home alone this winter. Each day the kids' school was open, the roads safe enough for my wife to head into work, leaving me with a lot of time to study up on my economics. Ironically, I've discovered the law of diminishing returns at work, for on this fourth day at home I truly ran out of stuff to study for economics. I know I'll turn around at some point in March cursing my failure to master some obscure curve like this.

These days have given me the chance to listen to my favorite economics guru, Clark Howard. For years I've taken to heart his pragmatic, frugal approach to personal finance. He has set me wise to so many ways to save money and protect myself over the years. But what I appreciate most about him is his humble approach to his work. Apparently on Wednesdays he dedicates 20 minutes or so of air time toward addressing listeners' complaints. Listeners who disagree with his opinion can post on the "Clark Stinks" part of his website, and one of his producers reads a few of the criticisms, giving Clark a chance to respond. In the two sessions of this I've heard he's admitted to being wrong twice. How refreshing!

Unfortunately, his radio show airs while I'm at work. The local station broadcasts Dave Ramsey, a much better-known financial guru. Dave's show has become my favorite show that frustrates me. I can't stop listening to him, but I much prefer Clark's spin on personal finance. Dave overtly applies his Christian faith to his advice, which is his right. Yet I tend to look at spiritual matters as largely separate from finance. Dave is also absolutist about the evils of debt, whereas Clark is very precise about good debt and bad debt. Certainly in Clark's universe the latter is much more common than the former.

And I think Dave's obsession with all debt being bad is misleading. I'm thankful that my wife and I went into debt to buy the home that is, well, home. We have found a wonderful neighborhood, great friends, and a lifestyle that is right for us. And we've been enjoying it now for nearly a decade. We would have missed out on great opportunities for the four of us (make that five, the cat loves this house) had we simply saved until we had amassed a fortune to pay cash.

It's fairly obvious that Clark doesn't pull in the ratings that Dave does, and that saddens me. It's easy to find entertaining and informed absolutists like Dave. But I wish more of America had the patience to listen to a pragmatic self-avowed nerd like Clark, and not just on matters of dollars and cents.

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