In the previous post, I posted an article about families sinking *spiritually* and financially via debt. I commented that I liked the mussar in the article, but thought it was disingenuous to ignore one of the driving factors behind debt in the frum community: i.e. tuition.
Now I will start to present some of the readers' write articles with my comments in orange once again.
Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum wrote in his essay "Dying to Borrow"that we have to live within our means, and stop borrowing to keep up with the Joneses.
While for those who indeed borrow to keep up with their friends and neighbors, of course he is right on the mark. However, Rabbi Birnbaum must realize that for the vast majority of middle-income frum families, it is simply impossible to live within means without running an operating deficit.
Take myself for example. I am earning what would be considered a "decent living" - approximately $130K/yr. We have been blessed with a family in the double digits, boruch Hashem. Over 40% of my income goes to tuition [Quick Calculation: Assuming he calculates from income, rather than post-tax income, that would be $52,000, a relative bargain with such a large family. That amount is about what is needed to enroll 4 kids in my OOT schools, both modern and not so modern] (the only financial investment that we will take with us to the NextWorld!). Otherwise, we live very frugally. Our children don't go to sleep-away camp [I presume they go to camp. We could and should open up a discussion about camp, but as you will see at the end of the letter the writer makes suggestions of what can be done, so I might as well put camp and what other models could be pursued to my forever increasing list of subjects to discuss], 50% of our clothing are hand-me-downs, chasunos are bare-bones, with no video, a one man-band, and minimal flowers [For an example of how other religious groups do weddings, see this post. I have yet to see a DJ at a frum wedding and I have yet to go to a wedding without flowers for centerpieces, except my own: see here. In that post I also mention vorts/l'chaims, which is something that is not a chiyuv, yet ever chatan and kallah I know has made one (except us), and many engaged couples make more than one, each in their respective hometown, and sometimes in their adopted hometown too]. . Our home has no room for our married children to visit without outsourcing our small ones to neighbors. Our cars are old. Believe it or not, we run an operating deficit of approximately $40K/yr. [Easy for me to believe, especially given the number of children]. As the kids continue to get married and as the cost of food and fuel continue to skyrocket, this number keeps ongoing up. [Shouldn't expenses FALL as children get married? Presumably one would need less food, less fuel. I imagine these parents are expected to help "support" which drives their costs continually up. Of course, it also may be that less children in school costs just as much between rising tuition and less scholarship awarded]. So, with all due respect to Rabbi Birnbaum, we don't need to be keeping up with anyone to enjoy the status of "The Debt-Ridden Folks." This status is being obtained much quicker these days for younger couples, as the cost of housing is approximately four times higher than when I bought my house. [Many young couples also have significant student loans, another factor that can't be ignored for the younger population.]
What is there to do? While I can't suggest solving the entire problem, I would like to suggest a few things that can help alleviate some of it:
1) We Yidden must do more to support our own community. Every dollar spent in-house has a ripple effect on our economy and our mosdos. [A whole post could be written on this alone. I find frum owned businesses, like kosher markets, to be prohibitively expensive. Some might try to guilt trip those who avoid the kosher markets, but I am certain if I did use them as a primary grocery store, rather than just for meat and cheese, products we use sparingly, that our grocery bill would double if not more!]
2) While there are, boruch Hashem, many gemachs out there, we need more money from the wealthy to help subsidize the cost of basic necessities in the form of low-cost food and clothing stores - in every community. [I'd prefer to see the super wealthy supporting the schools, underwriting tuition. This point doesn't seem to go with number 1. My own suggestion: don't rely on others to step up to the plate. If there is an area where money can be saved, get together with other families and make it happen, or start your own gemach. Here is how Mom-in-Israel puts together an almost free camp (I and II). There is no reason cooperatives couldn't be employed for pre-school, babysitting, etc. See Mom in Israel's tips for setting up cooperatives].
3) Our mosdos must work hard on building endowments in our schools so that the percentage of our income going to tuition can be reduced. [Agreed. In addition, staff costs are by far the biggest cost. Perhaps staff can be shared more effectively. My own experience is that hiring part-time costs does not cost half, more like 3/4's. And let's look at what is being duplicated and consolidate].
4) We must create a system for our chasunos like they have in Antwerp,where, together with volunteers, the cost of simple weddings can be lessened by a large margin. [See Harry Maryles' post on "Simcha Weddings" in Chicago. A good place to start might be modest bar mitzvahs. A challenge of weddings is that two parties are involved and there is a ton of emotion. More than one parent I know has just coughed up the wedding to make things more peaceful, or even save the engagement. Perhaps what we really need is volunteer mediators. :) ].
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and for a great paper. [None of my comments are meant to be critical of this family. The notes are just an easier way to jot some thoughts down quickly].
Avrohom Birnbaum responds:
I thank Ezriel Schwartz for his important contribution to this discussion. Indeed, the plight of the middle class in our communities is one that truly warrants discussion. As a collective community, we must band together to think of ways that will make it easier for people who earn a living honorably to be able to meet their expenses without falling into debt. The suggestions put forth in the letter are a good start.
Nevertheless, I think we would be fooling ourselves to imply that "keeping up with the Joneses" is a reason that accounts for only a small minority of those who borrow themselves into a spiral of debt. There is no doubt that a very large segment of the population does borrow money in an irresponsible way so that they can make simchos that they won't be ashamed of [like I said, time for someone to roll out a better model. For an example of leading by example, see "Gashmius NOT on parade"] or buy a car or house that they won't be ashamed of [we need to better transmit the message that modesty isn't just hemlines and necklines]. It is that large segment of the population, or those contemplating joining that group, to whom my words were addressed [I still like the original article, but it seems like the white elephant is still being ignored. Oh well].