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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"I Don't Know How to Live Poor"

(For those that aren't regular readers, click here, to see the original Editorial that spurned the Letters to the Editor that I am reproducing for discussion here).

Honestly, I find this next Yated Readers' Write Letter a bit frustrating. Don't get me wrong, I feel absolutely terrible for people suffering from the heavy burden of debt. But, the tone of this letter brings out a different emotion in me, one I would prefer not to have (Perhaps it was her complaints about the clothing donated to gemachs). My comments are in orange. Sorry if they come off unusually rough this time. I do wish to have a softer touch.


Dear Editor,

Thank you for your wonderful Torahdike newspaper.

I am writing in response to Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum’s article on credit cards. Perhaps I can share another perspective on the topic.

I am a mother of a large family, boruch Hashem, and my husband is a rebbi. Our family income is under $50,000 dollars [Single income? Joint income?]. When the children were younger, we were, to some extent, able to keep up with our bills. Then they grew older. They no longer could wear only hand-me-down clothing, because it’s embarrassing to be wearing a double breasted jacket when everyone else is wearing a three-button suit. The girls need something that fits properly, and something that wasn’t donated to the gemach when someone cleaned out her closet from five-or ten-year-old garments [One should understand that many people have survived to adulthood despite wearing unstylish clothing and suffering the embarrassment that comes with it. I understand the embarrassment the children feel when they are out of style (I was a mostly out of style kid once). And surely 5 to 10 year old tzniut clothing is not unacceptable. Most of my clothing is in this age range and I would hope someone in need would be happy to wear some of it. I find the snub to those donating to gemachs in hopes of helping a gratuitous insult]. It costs money to feed the kids. The schools charge for all kinds of trips and siyumim [The extra, unplanned expenses are an outrage in my opinion. Unfortunately, the parents who are being hurt the most by these expenses need to speak up]. . Gas has gone up. Utility bills have increased fifty percent. There are kids who need extra help to stay afloat academically. And, of course, there is the ever increasing minimum tuition. As a matter of fact, although our take-home pay covers most of our expenses, it does not cover our modest mortgage or tuition. I’ll admit this: I don’t know how to live poor. [I appreciate honesty! But it seems to me that when one is blessed with a large family-bli ayin hara-on a small income, that one must choose to live without certain things. Perhaps some of the things mentioned in this article? Although I realize that even those cutbacks won't solve everything on a $50,000 income for x people.] I don’t know how to make Shabbos without chicken and without meat for the chulent [I realize this letter isn't about starting a forum on more frugal homemaking. But, should a person be interested, you can make wonderful vegetable and legume soups in a crockpot. And even the Kosher by Design series has a vegetarian cholent recipe in it]. I don’t know how to tell a child, “I’m sorry, but you have to wear an out-dated suit because we have no money for the $55.00 suit at Sym’s." I don’t function well in a house that is unbearably hot during the summer. I can’t bring myself to call up someone and ask for a ride because the gas is too expensive.

Life would be so simple if all you had to do was live simply in order to make ends meet. Granted, Rabbi Birnbaum was addressing a certain segment of the population when he made a case for not relying on credit cards [I see no indication he wasn't addressing all of us at some level. Certainly the "bite" of interest that eats one alive is experienced across the board]. However, there are many hardworking people like my family who simply don’t have enough for the basics [Agreed].

I just want to end off as follows. Boruch Hashem, my husband and I are very happy with our lives. Everyone has challenges in life. We realize that in many areas of life we are blessed. My children all know to be careful with money, but they don’t feel deprived [I would be curious how the parents have conveyed this message]. We have a rich life - in Yiddishkeit, in family, and in simcha. And those are things we could never buy - even with credit cards [agreed].

Treading Water


Juggling Frogs said...

I'm optimistic, Sephardi Lady, because even Scarlet O'Hara eventually acquired a few frugal habits.

Just to address a few of the "living poor" issues she raised:

A. I second the veggie cholent recommendation. A frugal meal can be elegant if served with kedusha, gratitude and grace.

B. If it's too hot in the Summer, LEAVE the house. Go to a park (many have sprinklers and shade), a museum, the library, or start a playgroup.

C. If the fashion is for the parent, then GET OVER IT. If the fashion is for the kid, show them the thrift store and give a clothing allowance, along with mandatory minimum wardrobe to maintain.

You'll either be very impressed at the children's ability to squeeze the clothing dollar, or they will be humbled by the price of things.

They might even choose to baby-sit or rake leaves to pad their clothing budget. If they do, you'll be stunned at how well they care for the clothes they worked to buy.

D. See if there is a way to barter (perhaps with other parents) for the extra academic help.

E. Stand in front of a mirror and practice saying "We can't afford that" with dignity and without apology. Your budget is tight because you have chosen to go to day school/yeshiva, have chosen to buy only kosher food, have chosen to lead an open, hospitable, charitable, Jewish life.

If you didn't do all that, you could afford many other things. This is a reason to be PROUD, not embarrassed.

Supporting a family on this salary is a real challenge. The mother sets the tone for the whole family. How you react to this challenge will greatly impact how the children remember their childhood. Do you want your kids to remember, "My mother had a hard time, because she couldn't adjust to our low income" or "I don't know how she did it, but she made our small apartment feel like a castle, and guests always asked for seconds of her magical vegetarian cholent."

If you can't live poor, don't. Instead, live a rich Jewish life by holding your head high and doing your best to meet this challenge with determination and creativity.

Feeling crushed by discomfort and difficulty is the essence of impoverishment. Fragility is poverty. Powerlessness is a bad habit.

You may not have a lot of money, but money is not the only resource available to you. Resourcefulness and resilience are each a kind of wealth.

(How cliché would it be for me to quote Pirkei Avot? Do I get points for restraining myself?)

Tamiri said...

(1) I don't agree with having to make a meatless cholent. There are cuts which are so cheap, meant FOR slow cooking, that would not break the budget. I am not taking a chuck roast here.
(2) Gosh, even movie stars shop at gemachs (okay, 2nd hand stores) You can take the kids to Goodwill and have them put together funky outfits for under $5 (may be less, I am making an allowance for inflation since I have not been in the States for over 4 years)
(3) Poor people have to learn the lesson that finance concience rich people know: learn to say NO to your kids, neighbors, shul etc. It's character building.
(4) Depending on where they live, I believe that $50k is doable.
(5) I don't like the word deprived. It means there is a comparison system going on in the house. Children with 2 loving parents and a roof over their head, clothes on their bodies and food on the table are not deprived children.
(6) The children should work for their extras. Sam Walton of Walmart had his kids working, not taking from the stores from a very young age. There is no entitlement. You work, buy new clothes. You don't, we go to the gmach.
(7) It's far easier to a person who is not poor to accept favors (ask for a ride, ask a neighbor for hand me downs) than for someone who IS poor. Psychology.
(8) Band together with people in your financial situation and brainstorm together to make it work.
(9) Just say no if you can't afford school frills (money for a siyyum? Give me a breat) unless the kid can pay for it by him/her self.
(10) Hatzlacha rabba.

JS said...


I'm with you, for the most part this letter made me very upset. I grew up listening to my father tell me stories of growing up in Israel at the founding of the state in true poverty. Even thinking about it now brings a tear to my eye. Having to buy several day old rotten tomatoes from the shuk, my grandmother working from dawn to dusk scrubbing floors to supplement income, all clothes were hand-me-downs which came from relatives who felt bad, every time my father asked for something he was told how much food could be bought for the same amount of money, etc etc.

To hear someone making $50,000 say "I don't know how to be poor" just makes my blood boil. I'm sorry, but this person doesn't know real poverty. Having to wear a double-breasted suit is not real poverty.

What bothers me the most is that I see this attitude all the time in our communities - a new standard of "poverty" in which poverty is wearing hand-me-downs or not going to sleepaway camps in the summer or on trips to Israel for the chagim. There is a serious problem in our communities in recognizing what is extra and what is necessary. Living frum is expensive enough as is, and yet we have a mentality that we should all have a standard of living that is, in reality, far higher than average in this country or even in the nicer neighborhoods many of us live.

Also, not to be cruel, but what does one expect when earning $50K and having many children? Does any type of planning go into this?

Lastly, I was told growing up that every job had dignity, that there is a basic dignity in working. Our community also has an attitude that certain jobs are "beneath me". And it extends from the parents to the children, I know many parents who although unemployed wouldn't take certain jobs that weren't good enough or were "embarassing". And so the kids don't work because working as a check-out person in a supermarket is "embarassing", etc. If my grandmother could get down on her hands and knees and wash floors all day to build a better life for her family, I don't understand why others can't as well.

SephardiLady said...

JS-Your last point is particularly important. My mother always pointed out to me "a job is a job." I hope to retain that same positive attitude towards work with my own kids.

Tamiri said...

JS hit the nail on the head on 2 counts: The planning that should go into having a family and that any job that pays is worth doing. Why is it that our immigrant grandparents were willing to do anything to keep food on the table? Even in this day and age, we have Russians (NOT American) Olim who are willing to do what it takes to make life work here. There was a medical DR. waiting for her Israeli certification who washed the floors at the place my mother worked. Such stories are common here, why not in the States? And regarding having children: are we permitted to discuss that? Are we permitted to plan our family according to our abilities to pay their way in this world? Should I have NOT had more than 2 or 3 kids in the States since I could not afford full tuition for that number? Where does it start and where does it end?

jewchick said...


If we had this type of yeshiva in more communities, we might have less of a problem, and people might be more willing to work for a living.

Halfnutcase said...

I think that it should be pointed out that there are ways to dress your kids respectably for shabbos using hammidown or old suits and clothes.

There are certain styles of dress that are always considered respectable, and acceptable no matter where you are. Wearing a two button dark suit with medium notched lepels, inset pockets with flaps, and with pleats in the pants (but not necessarily cuffs) is one of them. Buy the suits when you don't have alot of kids, and get good ones, because those look good for much longer than others. if you're choosy you can get ones that can be let out or in by a tailor, I know most of the suits I ever had were hammidowns, and we took most of them to the tailor who made them look decent. (not to mention if you get classic styles, kids usualy grow out of clothes faster than they can ruin them, and if they are then well taken care of, IE cleaned, have holes fixed, they can be used on later children, without them looking shame inducing.)

Point collars for the shirts, and ties that are simple but match well. In particular a classic oxford (not a pinpoint) will last forever and is always acceptable, if a little less dressy.

For boys shoes one can get oxford shoes, without all the lacy decorations, black, with laces, and good leather soles that are sewn in. They are relatively expensive, but with regular polish, and a couple of trips to the cobbeler when the soles wear down (make sure you get good soles, the difference in their life span can be the difference between replacing their soles twice a year, and replacing them every 2, 3 or 4 years. and Don't wait untill its really a problem to get it fixed, small problems are easier delt with and look better fixed than big problems, such as the sole wearing though in the front and grinding the finish off the shoe.)

Have kids hat's custome made, I'm told they're about 200 dollars, but the difference is that they last forever and a day. When the hat gets pathetic, have it blocked, steamed, and retreated, much less expensive than buying a new one.

oh, and learn to sew. My over coat has broken many times, in many ways and I've fixed it each time, and when I couldn't I took it to a tailor. When the buckle broke, we replaced it. When the pocket started to rip at the seam, I resewed it before it was a problem. I've replaced every button on that coat at least once, and some of them twice. (i've had it for 5 years.) it still looks at least moderately respectable, and I wear it all winter long, and in the rain. Also when the water proofing wears off, theres a spray or a pain you can buy that will renew the water proofing. Just take it to the cleaners and get them to do the best job they can, and thereyou go.

Even with undergarments, don't buy the bottom of the line because they don't last long, but don't buy the most expensive either. TJ max, if it's near you, is a great store for that kind of thing.

Oh, and I do have one suggestion vis a vis women's clothes, IE shoes: Don't buy the super high heals, of the low ones, the square toes or the pointed toes, nor the sandals. Buy specificaly a modest leather pump, with not more than a two inch heal. Those also never go out of style, are modest and respectable, and again, polish it, and take it to the cobbler when there is a problem. Also, shoes last alot longer if you don't use them every day, because then they have time to recover after the last time you wore them, so keeping two pairs of shoes (and then letting them be hammidowns when the next child grows to that size) can actualy save you money in the long run. (and again, don't buy the cheap ones, because you'll be buying them again soon. Most of the payless shoes I've had lasted not even a year, and certainly were not presentable after a year. Compare 20 dollars ever year for a pair of shoes (or more) to when I got my last real shabbos shoes, 115 dollars, and they lasted me for 3 years, and when I polished them for the first time in a while, people would ask me if I got new shoes. Had I taken care of them better I have no doubt that they would have lasted longer (I shuffle some which can be a killer on concrete, although not so much with rubber soles) I replaced the soles (because they were wearing thin enough to have holes) with new ones, costed about 20 dollars, and if I'd gotten soles of the same quality I had before they would have lasted for 3 more years (or longer, I stopped playing basketball in those shoes) But instead I accidently got cheap ones which wore through so fast that it ruined the shoe its self, so I couldn't replace the sole again. HAd I done it right and they lasted for 3 more years, I might could have done it again in 3 years, but even if I couldn't (and polishing it regularly you probably could) I would have expended lets say 145 on the shoe, which is compared to 20 dollars a year (at least) over 6 years, or 160 dollars, for a way worse and not as nice looking shoe that shoes it's age quickly! (and if you can extend it again, it comes to 19.44 dollars, which is less than the payless shoe!) (dollars are about 2000 or thereabouts.)

Its probably to late for you to save the money this way, but seriously, for those who are worried, buying good quality clothes and then using a tailor/cobbler/hatter are really the way to go if yo want to both look respectable and save money!

Tamiri said...

There is an issue of "entitlement" which is rapant in our supposedly observant society. It behoovs Orthodox Jews to be above this, but we're not. It makes many of our people think they are deserving of whatever they see, without regard to their bank balance (which they choose NOT to see). I don't think it's tuitions or mortages which are at fault, though of course they don't make life easier. It's the flaw in our personalities which can bring us to the brink.. and beyond.
This flaw is observed in homes across the board, including those of Rabbis and their wives.
We need to remember that if we are not to the manor born, we need not pretend that we are.
Entitlement: I DESERVE a housekeeper/gardener because I work full time. Even though I can't pay my tuitions, it does not fit with my thinking to do these chores on Sundays (true statement once made to me as we gardened... on Sunday)
I DESERVE a human hair sheital because I don't "fargin" myself that much (true statement)
I DESERVE that trip even though we can't afford it because we never "do" anything.
I DESERVE xyz membership/subscription because it's our only form of entertainment (what happened to free?)
We MUST make a respectable (read: expensive) affair because that's what everyone does.
These are not things which get people INTO trouble, but they surely don't help get them OUT of trouble either.
People need to change the way they think.