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Personal finance course offers peace from anxiety, debt

Christian program encourages honest discussion, stewardship

Published: March 1, 2008   
Leslie O'Malley
Participants listen to Earnie Cavin (right) during a session of the Financial Peace University program at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock Feb. 17.

Rising fuel and food costs. Unexpected medical expenses. Layoffs and cutbacks at work. Almost daily credit card or loan offers. Sometimes it just takes the right combination to create debt problems, which can lead to stress, marital problems, even bankruptcy.

For Mary Kallenbach, parishioner at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, it was a series of hospital bills beyond what insurance would cover. She made it through the difficulties, but the experience stayed with her.

Years later, when Kallenbach went through the Little Rock Theology Institute, she found the ideal topic for her final project: the theology of money. She began looking into Christian money management programs.

"I always felt like I should bring this to others," Kallenbach said.

At the same time she was involved in a capital campaign at her church to fund repairs and the construction of a new rectory for the priests. A discussion with Kara Rago, former director of stewardship and development for the Diocese of Little Rock, led her to Financial Peace University, a personal finance and stewardship course for churches and their members.

The program was created by Dave Ramsey, an author and host of a nationally syndicated radio show on money management. According to the course material, Ramsey had amassed a $4 million real estate portfolio by age 26 and lost it all by age 30. He uses this experience, humor, and occasional Scripture references to help others face their financial problems.

"He's been where a lot of people are," Kallenbach said, in reference to Ramsey's debt and money management struggles.

After she finished her theology degree last summer, Kallenbach approached Father Richard Zawadzki, SVD, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, about holding the program for their parish. The first session of Financial Peace University was held at the church last fall. A second group of people started the program Jan. 20.

The course consists of 13 two-hour sessions. Kallenbach is the coordinator, and each session includes a video lecture and group discussion. The church bought the leadership kit with a set of DVDs, and each participating family purchases a membership kit for $99.51that includes a book, workbook, audio CDs and CD-ROMs.

Although the program is held at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, it is open to Catholics from other parishes and non-Catholics, too. The first session consisted of 13 families from seven different parishes. The current class has 16 participants.

"This class we have -- they don't mind talking," Kallenbach said. "Sometimes we leave, they're still in the parking lot. They're a good support system for each other."

John West, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton, came to the first session as a paid interpreter for a hearing impaired participant. He got interested and is now taking the course at a non-Catholic church in Benton.

"My wife and I were set if we were dead (with insurance), but after paying all the bills, there was not much left. I realized where I was spending a lot of money," West said. "Now I know where it's going."

For Kallenbach, the program has been a family project. Her sister, Sara Hill, and her daughter, Lynette Jack, did the program as "guinea pigs" before the first session at the church. Kallenbach's husband, Marty, and Hill also help with the current class.

In addition to the financial advice, Kallenbach mentions two spiritual benefits of the program. The first is a reinforcement of stewardship.

"(The program's focus) is getting people debt-free and showing people how to build wealth so they can give a lot of it away," she said. "If people can reach a point of financial peace, they are better able to give to worthy causes. If most of your money is tied up trying to survive, there's not much you can do."

West agrees. "We've always given to the church, but we're more aware. I also have money set aside to give--I didn't do that before."

The second benefit is stronger marriages. Participants have told her they "don't fight about money anymore."

"(Ramsey) does feel like his program is saving marriages," she said. "I don't doubt it."

Some participants are passing the information on to their children.

"We've started giving our kids (5 and 7) a commission, or money for doing certain chores around the house," West said. "They get money to give, money to save, money to spend."

For Kathy Naumann, a member of the St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community in North Little Rock, her introduction to the course came from her daughter, who took it with her husband as newlyweds in Jefferson City, Mo. Then her daughter paid for her parents to take it in Little Rock.

"My daughter was determined to get rid of as much debt as possible before she got pregnant. I was glad she was so sensible," Naumann said. "I think it should be part of pre-Cana (marriage preparation in the Church)."

One of the most helpful suggestions for Kallenbach was the idea of a zero-based budget, in which each dollar of income is assigned to a category before it's spent.

She quotes Ramsey as saying, "You name every dollar. If you don't name it, it walks away and you don't know where it went."

Sara Hill, a member of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton, credits this idea with helping her stay in her home.

"When my husband died a year ago, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to keep the house. But with the zero-based budget, I've been able to stay in the house. I do the necessities first, and the house payment is a necessity," she said.

And this control does bring peace.

"If you manage the small things, you manage the big things," Hill said. "It makes me much less anxious."

"The Dave Ramsey Show" is broadcast from 5-8 p.m. weekdays on 1590 AM KBJT in Fordyce and from 1-2 p.m. weekdays on 880 AM KGHT in Little Rock. Satellite radio subscribers can hear it from 2-6 p.m. Monday through Friday on XM channel 165 and from 8-11 p.m. Monday through Friday on Sirius channel 161. The show is also available online at dave ramsey.com.


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