Meir Shternberg: financial counselor and project director of JOIN Israel’s Pitronot Advocacy program, which helps people who have fallen into financial and legal difficulties
I once heard a well-known speaker relate that, around the turn of the last century, salesmen would go from door to door trying to sell something called “death insurance” — but no one wanted to buy it. Who wants to purchase an item that reminds them they’re going to die? Until someone had the brilliant idea to change the product’s name to “life insurance” — and suddenly, sales skyrocketed.
I’m the guy who would’ve fallen for that name change and been first in line to buy the new-and-improved “life insurance.” Not that there’s anything wrong with buying life insurance. But there is something embarrassing about being so easily manipulated by the advertising industry.
Me, along with the other billion or so people out there. That’s why I feel it’s important to share my story.
About 12 years ago, I came into my marriage with an easygoing personality and terrible money management skills. My easygoingness made for a great relationship with my new wife; my poor money management set me up for an unhealthy relationship with borrowing. I am forever grateful to Hashem that, despite the rocky financial road that I would travel over the next many years, my relationship with my wife was never affected. I know many in my situation who are not so lucky.
We started off our marriage with very little income. I was in kollel. My wife was in school for occupational therapy. While her parents footed her education bills, we got very little other parental support. That was fine — I knew money was tight in my in-laws’ home, and, coming from a more Modern Orthodox background myself, I had no expectations about anyone else supporting me. I was raised with the strong conviction that it was my job to provide for my family, and I was ready to go to work as soon as my wife gave the word that our kollel arrangement was too difficult for her.
In the meantime, however, we were enjoying the benefits of a kollel life, and neither of us was eager to give it up just because we didn’t have the money to finance it. Over the next few years, our family grew, and even though my wife was now working, our expenses had jumped higher than her salary. Still, we were managing to pay the bills — because I’d discovered the magical world of credit.
It started one month when, logging on to my online bank account and noticing how alarmingly it had dipped into the red, I saw a lifesaving banner ad flash across my screen: “Credit in an Instant! Apply for a $10,000 line of credit right now!”
Right now? With just one click, all my overdraft worries for the next few months could be taken care of? This was exactly what I was looking for! And so, I clicked. A few months later, when that money had run out and I was once again facing bills that couldn’t be paid, plus minimum monthly loan payments, the solution, to my mind, was obvious: Take out another loan.
And they were so readily accessible. Wherever I turned, there was some credit card company just begging to give me money. It was the life-insurance tactic all over again: “You’re preapproved for a $15,000 loan!” exclaimed one cheerful mailing.
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 746)
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