| Family First Feature |

Riches to Rags  

 When wealth drifts away, faith takes flight. Three families share the way their journey challenged them

Rebecca’s Story

Over the years of our challenge, I resented it when people would say to me, “If your problem can be solved with money, then you don’t have a problem.” I don’t agree. So many problems come from having no money — relationships suffer; mental, physical, and spiritual health suffer. It’s never just about the money.

It was a combination of factors that brought us to our knees financially. My husband is an anesthesiologist specializing in interventional pain medicine — a field that uses procedures like injections and minimally invasive surgeries to manage pain — and I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband did well, and we lived an upper middle-class life in a classy neighborhood, with a beautiful home and a pool. Our five children were all in private school.

Then in 2008, a hurricane hit our South Carolina area, destroying many homes (thankfully, not ours). The base of my husband’s practice was elderly people who’d come down from the East Coast in the winter to get away from the cold. Now that their winter homes were destroyed, they no longer came.

There was also an economic downturn in the country that year, and since interventional pain medicine is a fringe practice, many people could no longer afford to pay for such treatment.

In November, after the Yamim Tovim, which is usually when things get busy, the phone was dead. No calls came through, no appointments were made. We had two employees’ salaries to cover, a large office rental lease to pay, and all our bills.

It was scary. How were we going to do this?

Although my husband had been doing well financially, between the high cost of living in our ritzy neighborhood and the exorbitant tuitions (with no breaks), we had no savings. So now, when his income had been reduced to close to zero, we plunged immediately into debt.

Not only that, I’d grown up with a mother who, although she literally had millions in the bank, was so fearful of losing money — residual trauma from the Depression years, when she’d seen neighbors evicted from their homes — she never spent a dime if she could avoid it. For example, she never ran the AC. Even in the hottest summer months, we’d be shvitzing away.

I didn’t want to go back to living that, so when our financial situation hit rock bottom, I was a real mess.

As much as we tried not to let our kids know the serious state we were in, they picked up on it. We realized this a few months down the road when my sixth-grade daughter’s teacher called and said, “Aliza is getting really stressed about your family’s money problems. I need to ask you to please stop talking about finances in front of her.” I was so embarrassed, not to mention guilt-ridden. I didn’t want to be like my mother!

During the first two years of our challenge, I simply went through the motions, taking care of the kids, going to the office a few times a week to try to figure out how to cut down on expenses, trying to be supportive of my husband. I didn’t sleep well. I’d often wake up in the middle of the night and lie there, obsessively thinking about every possible bad scenario. We had so much debt, it was insane. I didn’t know how we could ever get out of it. I was constantly shuffling the balance of one credit card to the other.

Unsurprisingly, our financial crisis created tension between me and my husband. I’m a communicator by nature and he tends to shut down when things get tough. I wanted to talk, and he wanted to disconnect. As a result, our relationship suffered.

But then, together, we started coming up with solutions.

The first thing we did was take out a home equity line of credit. We borrowed a large sum to pay off our high mortgage and tuition and all our other bills. This pulled us through the worst of it when we had practically zero income those first years. The truth is, our business never recovered. At one point, I remember saying to my husband, “We have to sit shivah for this practice. It’s over.” My husband looked at me, a mix of exhaustion and determination in his eyes. “I know it seems hopeless,” he said, “but I think we can still turn it around.”

The next year, Hashem sent us a gift. My husband got a call from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) asking him if he’d be interested in being an expert witness for them, reviewing files and cases of pain clinics that were illegally writing prescriptions for oxycontin. They paid a great hourly wage, and though the work didn’t fill up his week by any means, it was very consistent in the beginning.

Another gift from Hashem was a call from my husband’s friend asking him to help him in his anesthesia practice. “I know it’s been a while since you’ve worked in anesthesia, Simon,” his friend said, “but you can shadow me for a few months — no pay — to get back up to speed on the current meds, and then I’ll start paying you.”

We were grateful for this opportunity, although it meant my husband was away all day and night. He’d leave the house at six a.m. to do the anesthesia gig, then work a few hours for the DEA, and in the evening, he’d go to his office and see the few patients he still had.

It was all on me to take care of the children. I wasn’t the best mom during those years, I’m sorry to say. There was a lot of negativity in the air.

Once there was a steadier income, however, things relaxed. When my husband started getting paid from the DEA, the atmosphere in the whole house lightened.

As soon as our lease was up five years later, we moved the practice to a smaller office with a significantly lower rent. We’d been borrowing against our house all these years to pay off our credit card debt. After selling it ten years later for much more than we paid, we finally paid off our debt.

Eventually, my husband closed the practice for good and started doing travel work as an anesthesiologist. He’d travel to different locations around the country and work there for a period of time. He still does that today.

During the crisis, my few closest friends were a big support. I remember a friend telling me, “If you can pay your bills today, don’t worry about tomorrow.” I could only hear it from her because I knew that she’d also struggled financially for years. She was helpful. My mother wasn’t. I tried not to talk to her about our situation, it just made me more nervous.

Today, I learn Shaar Habitachon. I wish I would’ve learned it back then; that would’ve been a huge support. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from the experience at the time. Practically speaking, the experience taught us to diversify. With the anesthesia work, my husband learned the importance of creating several avenues of support for the family.

A positive outcome of our financial crisis was that we moved out of our fancy neighborhood. I was never truly happy there because for most neighbors it was just about outward appearances like who had the nicest car or the nicest house. It certainly wasn’t a place to live when we were financially struggling! I still remember when I told the elite day school that we were pulling our daughter out and putting her into a much cheaper community school because we could no longer afford the $18,000 a year for tuition, the administrator said to me, “But isn’t your husband a doctor?” I learned that if you have an MD after your name, everyone thinks you must be rolling in dough.

The main thing I gained from this difficult period was that I learned to rely on Hashem. He helped us get through every single day and then the next. I remember I’d be loading the dishwasher and freaking out over the almost-due property taxes. How were we going to come up with $5,000? I’d beg Hashem, “Please send us the money by the end of April, the latest due date.”

And He always did. After that, whenever I was stressed, I’d say to myself, “Hashem didn’t forsake me last year. He won’t forsake me this year.”

At one point, our old house was under contract, and we were looking to buy a new one in a more reasonably priced area. We found a house and put down ten percent for the mortgage, but meanwhile, the deal with the old house fell through. For a few months, we had to pay two mortgages. It was crazy! But once again, before the taxes were due on both houses, Hashem came through, and the sole person who came to see the house bought it and paid in cash.

Of course, situations like these often leave scars. In general, baruch Hashem, my children are doing well, but some of them do have fears around money. I have to constantly reassure one of my older sons when it comes to finances.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that if everything is hunky-dory, we don’t grow. Unless we’re put in a tough situation, we’re not forced to think deeply, to become creative and access strength we may not know we have. There are people in tough situations who don’t learn and grow, and families do get broken up. Baruch Hashem, that didn’t happen to us.

Today I miss nothing about our old life. I can pay my bills on time without feeling stressed, and I feel so blessed. I’d say we’re even doing better now because we actively save, so we have money in the bank.

To someone else in my shoes, I’d say just what my friend told me, “Take one day at a time.” I also tell my kids, “The same way Hashem helped you today, He’ll help you tomorrow.”


Malky’s Story

Before we lost all our money, we were extremely wealthy.

Not that it was always that way.

When we first married, we moved to an out-of-town kollel in Chicago and we were broke. For six years my husband learned in kollel there, but when our family started growing, my husband went out to work. He opened a jewelry business, but that quickly went nowhere. A while later, he got into construction. He did very well, and over time, Hashem blessed him with extraordinary financial success.

While he took care of the finances, I was a stay-at-home mother taking care of our large family. My husband was a generous man who gave away millions of dollars to tzedakah. He also loaned money to people and institutions in Eretz Yisrael, America, and Europe — wherever it was needed — a lot of which we never saw again.

Although we didn’t live extravagantly, especially for a family with our means, we lived in a beautiful home. We’d moved back to Brooklyn by this time, and other than for chinuch purposes, we never had to deny our children anything. We were able to support them in kollel once they married, including buying apartments in Yerushalayim for the ones who moved there, and houses in the States for those who stayed here.

Our financial bliss came to an end after my husband was involved in a major car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for eight weeks. Although baruch Hashem he eventually was able to live an almost full life afterward, the recovery put him out of commission for two years and left him somewhat cognitively impaired.

Without him to oversee everything while he was recovering, his business fell apart. By the time he recovered, most of his building projects had been terminated and much money lost.

It wasn’t only about no longer having an income; it was also about my husband no longer being able to manage our finances. I didn’t know the first thing about paying bills. My husband had always taken care of the money stuff and now it was on me.

I realized we had a serious problem on our hands the morning I woke up shivering and realized the heat had been turned off. A week later, I flicked on the light switch only to realize our electricity had also been shut off. Even though we initially had the money to pay our bills, they weren’t being paid because my husband was no longer cognitively able to do it.

Soon, of course, the money ran out as well.

Each year on Purim night, our home was full of collectors. My husband had a gabbai sit in the living room handing out generous checks. When we lost our money, the same gabbai offered to raise money for him and continue to give money out so people wouldn’t realize our loss.

Baruch Hashem, we had a small monthly income from an investment we still retained. We also received disability payments every month. The problem was that since we weren’t used to having to budget, it was hard to accept that once the disability money and the investment income ran out, we had nothing until the next month. With my husband’s mental impairment and his generous personality, it came to a point where I had to keep some of the income in a separate account so we wouldn’t be left with nothing. It was difficult for me to see him spending money for things we didn’t need with money we didn’t have.

Thankfully, my dearest friend is a finance manager. After I confided in her one day, she said to me, “I can help you figure out how to budget. We’ll sit down and go through it together.”

“It’s so overwhelming,” I said.

She reassured me, “Take a deep breath. We’ll go through it step by step together. You can do this.” She was a huge help emotionally for me, too, because she never gets unnerved. So if I felt I was getting agitated over the situation, she’d be there to calm me down.

Although we were able to stay in our house, we had to downsize in various other ways. Sitting down together with our children in kollel and telling them we were no longer able to support them was painful. Some of them were upset to hear they were no longer going to receive the monthly checks from us that they’d come to depend on.

When a few of our single children asked about going to their favorite uncle’s wedding in Eretz Yisrael, I had to tell them we couldn’t afford the airfare.

“But it’s Uncle Shmiel’s wedding, our last uncle! We can’t miss it!” they said.

Of course, we could no longer offer support to our as-yet-unmarried children when they got married.

During this time, I took some courses to become a legal assistant. After eight years of barely making ends meet, I was able to get a decent job, and combined with the other income sources, our financial situation improved.

I would say that for my husband the most challenging aspect was not being able to shower others with money and gifts anymore, although I don’t really know what he was thinking because he never liked to talk about it. But it seems to me that was the biggest blow for him.

For me it was wondering how we would manage to pay all our expenses with such a reduced income.

What I learned from this experience is that nothing good or bad lasts forever. It’s truly galgal chozer baolam. We were so up there. People came to us in droves for financial assistance. Then when they learned of our fall, some people dropped us like a hot potato.

My husband has more emunah thanI do, and is more even-tempered. When I saw him taking the situation in stride, it helped calm me down. I learned patience and ultimately acceptance. I learned that everything passes and that one way or another, with Hashem’s help, we’ll get through it.


Rena’s Story

I would’ve described our financial situation before our financial crisis as comfortable. My husband was a marketing analyst and did very well. About 15 years ago, in 2008, the stock market plummeted, and our financial situation plummeted with it. My husband had made some investments that didn’t pan out the way he thought they would. Not only did we lose a huge amount of money, but we were now heavily in debt.

The same week we discovered how much money we’d lost, my father, with no warning, had a heart attack and passed away. For a while, between our financial disaster and the sudden loss of my father, I was so discombobulated, I didn’t know what I was doing. Even today my memory is a little shaky when I think of those first six months.

We initially didn’t want to tell my family about our financial disaster — and then with my father’s passing, I definitely wasn’t going to say anything. But sitting shivah with my siblings and mother was so much more stressful not knowing how we were going to pay our utility bills that month.

I do remember that for a time I was really angry about our situation. I felt it wasn’t fair. We were good people, we gave tzedakah — why did Hashem do this to us? I was also angry at my husband, feeling he’d made some bad fiscal decisions.

I didn’t have that much time to just sit and be angry, though, because we had to figure out how we were going to live in our new reality. One of the first things we decided to do was sell our house. I told my husband, “We need to sell our house to manage the debt.” He nodded and said, “You’re right, it’s going to be hard to downsize, but we have to do it.” This allowed us to remove some serious debt and stop paying a high mortgage. We moved into an apartment owned by family and paid a reduced rent. Then, though I’d never worked full-time before and still had young children, I took a nine-to-five office job. We also sold our second car.

Unfortunately, even though all these changes helped with the day-to-day expenses, we still had lots of debt to pay off and continued to scramble to pay bills. Whenever we needed a significant outlay of money, we had to borrow from gemachim or relatives.

By then, of course, our family knew about our dire financial situation. I don’t remember how they found out exactly, but I do remember my mother saying to me at some point, “Why didn’t you tell me about your financial troubles sooner?”

“I didn’t want to burden you, especially after Tatty died. But we’re fine,” I reassured her, even though of course we weren’t. Baruch Hashem, my husband has a rich uncle who would generously give us money every so often. There were two times when we directly saw Yad Hashem. One of our sons has ADHD and needed a special school. The problem was, it cost a fortune. It just so happened that my father-in-law somehow acquired a large sum of money and decided to give each one of his children a chunk of it. The second time this happened, we were making a wedding and it “just so happened” that there was some kind of error with our taxes to our benefit, and we received a refund much larger than expected.

I’d say one of the hardest parts of our no money situation was the feeling of insecurity I walked around with constantly. I’d think: What happens when we need to replace the oven or fridge or need money for some big purchase? What’s going to be in the future? What will we live on for retirement?

We’d lost every penny of our savings and then some (a lot!). I carried this pressure and tension for years.

I do want to mention that my children were, for the most part, wonderful about it. Baruch Hashem we have a strong work ethic in our home, and our kids always had jobs and responsibilities even when money wasn’t an issue. Now under these straitened circumstances, they rose to the occasion. The older kids were very supportive and when they married, the younger children came through. If one of them knew we didn’t have money to pay for something, — a trip or extra item of clothing they wanted — they’d go out and work for it.

Today, baruch Hashem, between my job and my husband’s job there’s more of a regular income, so we can take care of our day-to-day expenses as we continue to slowly pay off our debt. Now that the situation has somewhat abated, I can look back and see how much I grew from the experience. In the old days, I never had to think before I bought something. For example, we once went out to eat in a certain restaurant that my children had gone to many times without us, I remember the owner saying to us, “I don’t know you, but I know your credit card!” I could go into a jewelry store to purchase a bracelet and hand the clerk my credit card without even asking the price.

But when our financial crisis hit, I had to think hard before I bought even a necessity like a frying pan. The good part is that I appreciate every new pot and every new lipstick that I buy today. I get the same amount of satisfaction from that as when I got a new piece of jewelry back then because I realize it’s not so much the item I’m purchasing, but the fact that it’s new and fresh. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Also, I go shopping much less often, so that adds to my joy when I get something new. It’s a matter of Aizehu ashir hasameach b’chelko. I live that now. Previously, I’d, let’s say, buy a few pairs of shoes at a time, and half of them I never wore, or my kids never wore. Today, whatever I buy I use and enjoy. I think some people might say, “Oh, she’s just saying this to feel better about not being able to buy at will anymore.” But I believe it’s true.

Something else I learned that took me years to process that was that when something happens to you, it happens because it’s supposed to happen to you. It doesn’t happen because of the person you married, or the neighborhood you live in, or because the market value of your home went down. If one person makes a decision and others are affected for good or bad, it’s because they were all supposed to be affected.

This was hard for me to accept because it’s not like it made our situation easier. At least, though, it stopped me from blaming my husband and others. I wasn’t living my life by mistake; I was living the life I was supposed to be living. This was a tremendous lesson in emunah for me. Today, when I daven and say the brachah, “She’asah li kol tzarki,” I have more kavanah. I feel the truth of the words.

My husband, on the other hand, has and always had incredible emunah, so he never struggled as much, which was helpful to me as well. In fact, years later, close friends of ours went through a bad financial downturn, and the husband almost had a nervous breakdown. My husband spoke to him every day about emunah, and as our friends keep telling us to this day, my husband saved his life.

Not to say there aren’t times even today that I wish things would’ve gone differently, but when I think about it from a more internal place, I realize the truth is I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 898)

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