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Financial freedom and the power of community

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John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File

(Read caption) Those who attend financial planning courses say they benefit most from finding a community of people with the same struggles. Save the tuition and create your own community, like these men meeting in a Boston Starbucks, in this file photo from October, 2002.

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When I was in college, I did a great deal of religious exploration. I attended services for tons of different religions, trying to understand all of the varieties of religious experience out there and to simply see what worked for me.

While I never really came up with any conclusions about my own faith, one thing I did notice is that the most powerful parts of any service were the ones where camaraderie was at the forefront. When people stood up and sang together, when people embraced each other, when people said a common prayer in unison – those were the moments that came across as powerful to me and stayed with me later on. Those moments gave a unique sense of not being alone in all of this.

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Community is powerful. It’s a very powerful thing to find people who believe similar things as you do, who strive to make you feel better about yourself, and who accept you into their community. It feels good and it often reinforces whatever messages are being shared throughout the community.

Which brings me back to Dave Ramsey.

I’m using Dave Ramsey here as a proxy for lots of different personal finance speakers, but his offerings are perhaps the easiest ones to show what I’m talking about.

For those of you unaware, Dave Ramsey’s company, the Lampo Group, produces a series of courses called Financial Peace University. These courses are hosted locally, often at churches, and typically consist of a series of thirteen weekly classes.

In those classes, you find a group of people who share a common problem: financial troubles, usually debt related. The classes themselves focus heavily on discussion situations, where people talk about and share their problems and look for solutions to those problems.

What’s happening here? The same thing that’s happening in the church service. A community – a group of people congregated around a common trait – is helping the members to thrive.

For those of you who have taken Financial Peace University, I’m going to throw out a suggestion, one that matches the experience of a lot of readers who emailed me. The materials were useful, but the real value of that class was the other people and the realization that you’re not alone in struggling with your finances. Not only did you find you weren’t alone in the problems, you also found that you’re not alone in the solutions.

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A big part of the reason that so many people find Financial Peace University so empowering – and the same goes for a lot of financial material – isn’t the great material being presented. You can find that material all over the place.

The reason it’s powerful is the other people, the sense of community, the same exact thing that I admired most about the religious services I attended.

The Lampo Group makes a pretty penny facilitating these courses, and it certainly costs people to participate in them.

I argue that you can find that same sense of community and shared purpose in your own life if you let go of your fear of communication with others.

Instead of signing up for a course like that and writing a check that you can’t really afford, find your own group – and start with the people in your own life.

Get those people together and start a “book club” on pretty much any personal finance book out there. You could use Your Money or Your Life or my book or anything else that trips your trigger. You could use any online series on any blog you wish.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of the material you find in those sources is going to be pretty similar to other sources. Pay off your debts in an orderly fashion. Spend less than you earn. Get a grip on your spending. Figure out your spending weak spots and address them. Start setting written goals for yourself. Don’t sweat the source too much.

Instead, focus on the power of community.

Right now, look through your list of friends and family. Look far and wide for any of them that might be having some financial trouble in their lives – or for those who might have some financial answers of use to you. Write to them with a little bit of confession, describing a bit of where you’re at and what you’re seeking, and simply say, “You know, maybe we could work through this together and put us all on a better path.”

That’s the initial hump, and it feels like a mighty big one. A lot of people, from what I’ve seen, attend paid groups and seminars like Financial Peace University in order to avoid that hump. They want that community, that sense of being in this together, and they’ll pay for it.

In the end, though, are you afraid of these people in your life?

It takes a little bit of risk to open that door, but that risk pays dividends in forming a much deeper bond with them. It can also help you get your financial life on track – and you don’t have to drop three figures of your hard-earned money on a financial course, either.

I started The Simple Dollar because I realized that I just wasn’t afraid any more to admit to others that, yes, I was (and in many ways, still am) a financial half-wit. The result of that wasn’t that family members and friends made fun of me or looked down upon me. Instead, what happened is that they now felt comfortable talking with me about it, and our bonds deepened.

You can open that same door in your own life. All it takes is a bit of swallowing of pride.

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