They were living in Israel, but their spending habits were still American. It was a financial disaster waiting to happen
Tirtza Siegel* — 35, homemaker and mother of six
Sari Mandel* — Financial coach, Mesila, an organization promoting financial stability and independence
want to start off by stating that I feel extremely blessed to have the zechus of living in Eretz Yisrael. I’ve decided to share my story not because I want to chas v’shalom imply that life is hard here, or that people in America have it better; in fact, I feel that the overall quality of life in Israel, taking all factors into consideration, is actually much higher. The reason I’m sharing my story is that, after going through it myself, I’ve realized the mistakes we made could befall anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t adjust his lifestyle to his financial means.
Aryeh and I were your typical newlywed American kollel couple, starting off our married lives in Eretz Yisrael on my parents’ dime. Both of us come from upper-middle class families — not well off enough to qualify as rich, but quite comfortable. As a young kallah, I quickly became part of the Sorotzkin crowd, going out for lattes at Nina’s and swapping dinner recipes. Even in those pre-Instagram days, I still took pride in creating elegant dinners for my new husband, and I felt like I was doing my duty as a genuine balabusta.
The years passed, and slowly most of the old Sorotzkin crowd moved back to America, but we were still here. Aryeh was still shteiging in kollel, and had also taken on some side tutoring jobs. Our kids were happy in their cheders and gans. We made the decision that, even though our parental support had stopped, we would remain, and give it a go at building our lives here.
One thing Aryeh was adamant about was that my primary focus should be our home. At that point we had three little children, and, as he often repeated, “They need a mother and I need a wife. I’ll worry about the finances.” So I continued working at my morning secretarial job, which, though it only contributed minimally to our income, allowed me to be home by one for my children. I was so proud to have a husband who cared about me and valued what I did for our family. And if it reflected the fact that he was living in a bit of a fantasy world about money matters, well, so was I. After all, we’d always had enough money, we’d always been able to spend without counting our shekels, and — the real clincher — we had a significant amount of savings in the bank. Our wedding money was still untouched, and over the years a lot had been added to it, thanks to gifts from our grandparents and especially to one particular windfall — a yerushah from Aryeh’s great-uncle, who had died childless.
So we both felt pretty financially secure as we made plans to settle in more firmly to family life in Eretz Yisrael. We decided to move to a less transient community with more of a family feel, and chose Ramat Beit Shemesh. The realtor showing us apartments asked us what our rental budget was, but we had none. However, while we had no clear picture of our finances, we had quite a clear picture of how our home should look. Between the two of us, we kept nixing many of the more modest options that she showed us, appropriate for a young family of five, and insisted we need bigger and better. We finally found it: a large five-bedroom with an expansive garden and upgraded kitchen. The rent was astronomical, and even the realtor, with the prospect of closing the deal, was dubious.
“Why do you need such a big place?” she asked. “Are you sure you can afford it?”
But I knew I wanted space for my family to grow, until the time came to buy a place of our own, and yes, of course we could afford it! So we signed, moved in, and began getting to know our new community.
We loved it from the start. I found myself surrounded by families just like my own, idealistic American olim living the aliyah dream. It was a neighborhood where I felt we could grow spiritually, but also feel comfortable in our familiar American culture and lifestyle.
That lifestyle came with a price tag, of course, but we’d already gotten used to it during our years in Yerushalayim. More than that, it was the lifestyle we had both been born into, and we’d never learned to live any differently. By this time, I was expecting my fourth, and I had gotten in the habit of ordering takeout for dinner. We didn’t have a car at first, so we took cabs everywhere — how could I be expected to endure the inconvenience of schlepping on buses?
As our children grew older and our family expanded, the expenses mounted. The children needed extracurricular classes, tutoring, speech therapy. Even though I could have gotten this through the local health fund, everyone knew that the best therapy was paid for privately, so I didn’t even consider another option. Our clothing, the treats I sent to school for Shabbos Abba, the toys I bought my children — everything was done without a thought for the cost. After all, my kids couldn’t feel deprived, could they? I had to make sure they had whatever their friends had.
And the same went for me. I needed my restaurant lunches and my hotel vacations, just like my friends had. What did it matter that their husbands were telecommuting and earning American salaries, while my husband, who was by now working full time as an English teacher in the local school system, was most definitely earning on an Israeli pay scale — and the lower end, at that?
Although our families sent us gifts here and there, most of our monthly budget came out of our savings account. Yes, it was supposed to be for purchasing a home, but we had so much money, I knew, that withdrawing a few thousand now and then could hardly make a dent. As the years passed, and the “dent” grew deeper, but neither of us paid attention. It’s astounding now to admit it, but we simply chose not to look.
That’s right. In the best tradition of “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” we convinced ourselves that we were doing fine, we had plenty of money left, and if we didn’t actually look at our bank statement, then we could still keep on pretending that everything was rosy.
The fact that it was patently impossible to spend NIS 25,000 a month when our combined income was NIS 10,000, and not have our savings dwindle drastically, I didn’t want to consider.
Yes, 25,000 shekel. By the time we woke up, that’s how much we were spending every month. Not that we knew the actual amount — but we did start to realize that something was very wrong with our financial picture. I got the shock of my life when I took a peek into our savings account —which was supposed to provide our financial security for decades to come — and realized it had dwindled down to almost zero.
Finally,we admitted to ourselves that we couldn’t go on like this. We needed help.
Sari Mandel, Mesila coach, relates:
The simple fact that you can’t spend more than you earn sounds intuitive, but it’s incredible how many people don’t grasp this obvious equation. As a matter of fact, there’s a nearly universal tendency to do exactly the opposite; time and again, experience has shown that people automatically spend more than they earn, no matter how large their salary is, unless they actively monitor themselves.
However, there’s a difference between going a little over budget every now and then, and spending nearly $4,000 over your income every single month. Unfortunately, Tirtza’s story is one I’ve heard many times before, and I believe it’s a story particularly endemic to this generation.
Many couples today grew up in comfortable homes where the father’s salary, plus, perhaps, the mother’s part-time job, were more than adequate to cover all the family’s financial needs. They got used to a certain standard of living, and some aren’t prepared to confront the fact that the financial realities today are much, much different. In the American model, tuition is higher, health care costs are much more of a burden, and add to that the cultural facts that the younger generation tends to have larger families and also often starts off their first years of marriage in kollel. It quickly becomes clear that the financial picture is going to look much different. For some, this can create a painful conflict between their expectations and reality.
When Tirtza and Aryeh first came in to see me, they presented a classic example of this conflict. She insisted that everything she was spending on was something her family needed — because she had a specific vision of what her life should be, based on what it had been like growing up. How could she deny her children or herself things she felt they deserved?
The first step of our coaching process is the intake.
At that initial meeting, I gave them a multipage financial form to fill out. This form is essential to giving a couple an accurate picture of their financial situation. The couple must record all of their income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. We ask them to track all of their bills, credit card statements, and cash transactions. We look at both monthly and annual expenses; while people tend to think in terms of “having enough to cover the month,” the fact is that our expenses vary greatly throughout the year, and the money we make in, say, November and December, has to be enough to also cover the extra expenses of Pesach and the summer.
At our second meeting, we carefully went through the financial form. That’s when Tirtza and Aryeh were jolted by the discovery of just how much they were spending each month. Seeing the numbers in black and white is generally a huge wake-up call, and a primary catalyst for reform. The next important step in the process is what we call “The Change.” We ask clients to write down their vision of where they would like to be financially, and what price they’re willing to pay to get there. At our third meeting, I discussed the couple’s vision with them, suggested several tracks to get there, and helped them devise a work plan for how to implement it.
My job as a coach is to help my clients see their financial situation with clarity, lay out for them various options for improvement, and then support them in the options they choose. In Tirtza and Aryeh’s case, there were two primary avenues for change: cut back on their “luxury” expenses, and increase their income.
While they both expressed willingness to entertain both of these options, it seemed clear that they were having a harder time entertaining the idea of making drastic cuts to their lifestyle. But they knew something had to be done and both Aryeh and Tirtza were open to discussing various ideas for increasing their income.
Still, this was a long-term solution, and something needed to change in the immediate future, to prevent them from sliding into debt. With difficulty, Tirtza acknowledged that she would have to cut back on the takeout and restaurants. I encouraged her to speak to some friends who got by on a much lower standard of living, both to get her out of her misperception that “everyone lived like this,” and also so she could find out how, in fact, they managed. After making some hard choices, they managed to cut back their expenses by about NIS 8,000 — a significant accomplishment, but still not enough.
This is as far as we’ve gotten in the coaching process. At our next meeting, we will look more closely at their expenditures, and see where they can cut back. Scaling back the children’s extracurricular activities would be a good place to save money. Moving to a smaller apartment would be a great way to make a dramatic impact on monthly expenses — but I don’t know if the couple is ready to make such a drastic change at this time.
In the meantime, Tirtza has taken on more hours at work, while Aryeh has begun tutoring English on the side. He is also considering going back to school to retrain as a computer programmer. While they still have a way to go on their journey, they’re definitely on the right path, and I have high hopes that they’ll ultimately succeed.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 741)
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