by Chaya Margolin
Reprinted with permission from the N’shei Chabad Newsletter
Up until five years ago, I knew nothing about money.
I would receive my paycheck and hand it to my husband, trusting that he knew exactly what to do with it.
I would go shopping for things we needed, things we wanted, and things that I simply saw. I would use either a credit card or debit card. It made no difference to me. I had no idea how much savings we had, how much money we had in our account or how much money we were making. None of this was of any concern to me.
But at some point I did start noticing that my husband could sometimes be evasive about our financial circumstances. Could I buy this pair of shoes that I needed? Yes, he would respond, we’ll figure it out. But do we have the money for it? Yes, yes, he would say, don’t worry, I’ll work it out.
If you need it you need it.
Then there were other times that I would buy something and my husband would get stressed about it. “Do we really need that?” he would ask me. “We can’t afford to just keep on buying all this stuff.”
Yet if I asked any questions about our money he either didn’t know the answer or would get uncomfortable. I realized that talking about money always became awkward, but I was really just trying to understand what was going on.
Soon I started paying attention to small purchases I was making, and then worrying about the big things: What would we do about tuition, a down payment, bar mitzvahs, weddings? We had debt (how much? I had no clue), but was there any plan for paying it off? Were we giving a tenth of our income to tzedakah, or less, or more? Every time I would broach the subject we would end up in an argument.
Why was it so difficult to talk about money? If it was really in such short supply then why were we spending on non- essentials like expensive restaurants and vacations? And if it wasn’t in such short supply, why were we unable to talk about it?
I know now that the topic of money is one of the biggest taboos and roots of arguments between couples. A 2015 study by SunTrust Bank and another one (also 2015) by the American Psychological Association affirm that money was the primary issue for a full 35 percent of couples experiencing stress in their relationship. That number jumps to 44 percent for those aged 44-54, meaning the older a couple gets the worse it becomes.
And then I found a book called The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey in the home of my parents-in-law. I shamelessly stole the book from them and read it cover to cover; it changed my outlook. After that I read more books on money management, devouring anything I could get my hands on. That’s when I first began to think about things like investments and retirement.
One of the hardest things in the beginning was getting my husband on board; he just didn’t think I knew what I was talking about. But then I made a budget, which he appreciated—after all, I was the one regularly spending the money. The truth is, he hates numbers and spreadsheets, and was happy for me to create a budget that he knew we needed but was neglecting. When he finally realized that I actually knew what I was talking about he was happy for me to take the lead.
We had credit card debt but thankfully still had savings left over from our wedding. Repeating what he heard from “around,” he said debt was good for credit. I didn’t buy it and convinced him to pay off our credit card debt in one shot. We did, and soon enough, using the tools I had gained from my research, began rebuilding our savings. A few months after we paid off our debt I had built up our savings to our previous level; now my husband was hooked.
With our future in mind, together we started investing our money.
The solution to our financial issues was relatively simple, but making that change in our lifestyle was difficult. It took a lot of hard work. It took a lot of perseverance and patience but we changed the way we live.
I found money in our income to spend on the things we value, but not on things that are not really important but eat up money. I now have peace of mind about our future. However, the most positive change was the way it helped my marriage. Money is now an easy conversation between my husband and me. We talk about it often, and sit down every month to review and discuss our budget. No more do we have those awkward conversations wondering where our money went and who spent how much on what.
The books that I had been reading were great, but from the start I saw that while the general approach absolutely worked, it wasn’t tailored to my frum lifestyle. The more my life evolved, with multiplying children (and with them, of course, multiplying tuitions, and future expenses like camps, weddings, etc.), the more I saw that. We all pay thousands of dollars a year on tuition on top of all the other necessary Jewish expenses.
An anonymous writer published on the website Times of Israel (Sept. 11, 2017) an article entitled “I Can Do Jewish On Just $40,000 a Year.” It went viral. Unlike that writer, we all understand the importance of chinuch and so private school tuition is an obligation not a choice. But at the same time, we need to remember our priorities and values. We don’t need to pay for the Pesach hotels or the other things mentioned in that article. It’s not all or nothing. The big expenses like Tishrei and Pesach come around every year. We shouldn’t be surprised when they come up, but need to instead prepare. Sometimes all that’s needed is a step back and a look at the budget (sometimes a change of job or change of location is needed in order to make it work). We can live a Yiddishe lifestyle with the Yamim Tovim and filling the needs of our kids without having a brand new car, tons of Shabbos outfits for our sons and daughters, and the fanciest double stroller on the market.
And so as I applied what I learned to my own life, I began editing it to conform to afrum lifestyle. Then, having experienced first- hand the amazing benefits of living debt-free and planning ahead, I started to encourage my friends and family to try it out too. Seeing that I could help others, in the past year I began offering financial coaching.
It could very well be that the husband or the wife is better suited to take the lead when it comes to organizing finances. Regardless of who takes the lead, both husbands and wives can and should play a participating role in managing finances.
Research (and experience) has shown that women have a knack for thinking about details. Women generally need to feel secure and therefore they are usually the first ones in the marriage to detect that something might be wrong financially and want to reach for help.
Additionally, and this is especially so in our community, for the most part it is we women who are regularly spending the money. Groceries, children’s clothing, baby supplies, Shabbos; many of us find that our husbands have no idea what needs to be bought. Yet too many wives have no inkling of what their budget should look like; it is difficult to watch what you spend, or be a knowledgeable consumer, if you don’t have a budget. In the old days I might have told my husband that I absolutely needed such-and- such diaper bag. What does he know about the necessity of a diaper bag? Had I known what our finances looked like I would have been in a better position to evaluate whether I needed that particular bag or not. All of which does not mean luxuries or extras can’t be had; they can, but only when you plan for it in an organized and responsible manner.
But all of this can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing.
So many people start out with the intention of finally tackling their finances, getting a budget down on paper, and taking control, but they get bogged down and lose their drive. That’s where I come in. As I started helping family, friends, and clients with their personal financial struggles, I saw that they needed a lot more than a five-minute pep talk. Sitting with them and going through their finances and finding the particular issue in their situation (everyone’s finances and make-up are different), I realized that the ideal solution for them was to sit down with me and really focus on it twice or three times. We spread it out over three months so they had a working plan they could experiment with. As various important or unexpected expenses popped up we are able to edit the budget, moving on from lapses in judgment and celebrating accomplishments as we go, always encouraging them not to lose hope.
Everyone is different. Some people have no savings, and are making little money. Paying back their debts could take months, or years, but it is possible. Other couples are bringing in nice salaries but have no idea where the money goes, leaving them with nothing at the end of each month. Sometimes this second scenario is the more difficult to fix.
We need to always keep in mind our values and priorities. As parents, the most important things our families need are a roof over their heads, food, and chinuch. After that we need to choose what we value, and our priorities. Do we want to be a burden on our children in our old age? Do we value ballet lessons over saving for our daughter’s wedding? Is a new Yom Tov outfit from Kingston more important than saving for a down payment? Once we are thinking about a down payment, which neighborhood, which city, is reasonable and affordable for us? In the big picture, how important is it for us to have that fancy-looking car?
I took a course, Dave Ramsey Financial Coach Master Training, and now my course that I offer is called Financial Freedom because the luxuries should be allowed in our life. But we need to think them through and first make room for the really important things. And if you budget and stick to it, you will be financially free.
Chaya Margolin lives in Crown Heights with her family. Chaya is a graduate of the Financial Coach Master Training program, which helped her gain knowledge and perspective on how to help families from different backgrounds and with various financial issues to get organized, start budgeting and climb out of debt. She is also principal of the Shluchim Office’s Nigri Jewish Online School. For further information or to schedule an appointment, contact Chaya at [email protected] or 718.962.5033.