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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Super-Sized Families and Their Budgets

In the comments section of a previous post, a reader asks for advice:

Please expert budgeters out there--HELP! Maybe I am doing something wrong. I earn $100,000 per year and have ten kids (eldest is 18). My wife earns enough money to pay for a cleaning woman once a week and is a stay-at-home mom. Groceries, tuition, car expenses, simchas, gifts, clothes, health and dental costs not covered, medication and orthodonture are not at all covered, etc. total more than our income. I am posting from a friends computer as we have no tv or internet at home.

Anyone with experience raising a super-sized family should weigh in. Anyone with real life experience on how to stay debt free (excluding a mortgage) while raising a very, very, very large frum family on a limited income should chime in and offer their advice. If you have real-life experience, whatever you are able to say will be far better than what I have to offer (especially without a previous year's budget in hand). In the meantime, I hope the advice I can offer will not completely fall upon deaf ears. (Also, please see the Budgeting Label for past material).

The first thing that I think is crucial to discuss is expectations. In general, I would say that those in the Orthodox community expect to provide their children with a "upper-middle-class" lifestyle regardless of circumstances. Playgroup/Pre-school, Camp, and a year in Israel (and usually years in Beis Medrash for boys) are givens in frum families. Cleaning ladies and other household help are near staples in most frum households. But not everyone can live the "(Frum) American Dream." And I believe it is important to make peace with that fact.

In the frum world, there is little diversity of experience. For the most part, we expect parents to "help" post-marriage and certainly pre-marriage. Attend any shidduch meeting and you will see that this assumption is practically written in stone.

Rarely, if ever, do you meet Jewish teenagers who are expected to work to help the family put food on the table, take a full time job immediately after graduation, or take a job during high school and save the money (not spend it on stuff) to pay for college in cash (not student loans). I'm sure most of our grandparents/great-grandparents were expected to do one or all of the above, but in today's Jewish world we just don't see these things happening and probably haven't even considered them as options. Yet there are American teenagers doing all of the above and they live perfectly functional lives (I went to high school where most parents expected their children to be somewhat self-supporting shortly after graduation, so I still experience culture shock when young married couple's parents are paying their car insurance).

I think the first thing that any family that can't meet their expenses must do is sit down with their children and discuss the situation in the most non-threatening way possible. They need to reassure their children that they will have shelter and clothing, but that they will be making cuts and that it is important to come together as a team and decide how to support each other while expenses are cut and income is perhaps increased.

I know many parents who just don't want to let their children know they can't "provide." But, ultimately lack of funds/debt catches up with a family and my own opinion is that it is best for children to live with the reality of the situation rather having whatever fantasies the children have built up (a 400 guest wedding, parents paying for college, uninterrupted years in Beis Medrash, etc) come crashing down.

Truth be told, I'm not sure a family of 12, with 10 school aged children can avoid "the red." But, I'd like to think that it is possible. I think the most important thing to understand is that commitment to take the budget out of the red isn't going to be easy and will most likely require a major overhaul.

Here are my semi-solicited ideas:

1. Find a Financial Coach: Hopefully there is someone in your community who is willing to serve as the "bad guy," by reviewing your budget and receipts. Having an outsider serve as the "bad guy" brings in a new set of eyes and ideas and takes some pressure off of the team. Lately, I'm reading more about "financial coaches" and I think it is an idea worth exploring.

2. Increase income: All household members that can babysit or can work outside of the home can contribute to the budget. Babysitting on evenings so mom can work in or out of the home or so that dad can work overtime is an extremely valuable contribution.

3. Cut the Extras: The author mentions his wife works just enough to pay a cleaning lady. This expense is probably the most obvious expense to go. Any child over 5 should be able to join the cleaning team. I personally can't imagine how to keep a house with 10 children even somewhat clean and understand the desire for help. But, something has to go. I don't know what the author does for simchas, but since they were mentioned, I would say if the money isn't there, a kiddush will have to suffice. Orthodontic work is another expense mentioned that I would say is extra.

4. Cut the Utility and Food: Get everyone in the habit of turning out lights, taking short showers, turning off the facet while brushing teeth, running full loads of laundry, etc. Get the kids involved in reading the circulars, cutting coupons, collecting the neighbors coupons where possible, and cooking inexpensive meals. Coordination is key, so all teenagers should get involved. Consider the (possible) change a valuable lesson in home economics. Challenge the kids to come up with a healthy inexpensive dinners that will feed 12. I have a few "Three dollar meals" that are filling. And if you are keeping chumrot in kashrut, consider a change (I know this is never popular advice).

5. HaKarat HaTov: Make sure to show appreciation for all the team members and find small way to reward everyone as goals are met (e.g. ice cream).

(I'm reposting readers comments in the comments section. Thanks to all the readers of this blog!).


SephardiLady said...

At October 20, 2007 10:46 PM, Anonymous said…

There is no way to support 10 kids on $100,000 a year unless you live in a rural community and get free tuition - so I recommend that you make aliya and live on a moshav - you will get free tuition, free healthcare, and extremely cheap housing

At October 20, 2007 10:53 PM, Anon E Mouse said…

Your wife could cancel the cleaning woman and work for $$$ at home (which won't be easy while being a mom to 10 I'm certain!).

Meanwhile your 18 year old could work part time (I assume s/he is a senior in high school?).

But for a family of 12, shopping in bulk and couponing will be crucial too.

Before making aliya, make sure you have a salary lined up there--- it makes me crazy to see people making aliyah with no idea what they'll do for a living there.

At October 21, 2007 1:43 AM, mother in israel said…

Boys can wash the floor too. If all your teenagers are away in yeshiva, teach your younger kids. Here's my post on the subject:
kids and cooperation

At October 21, 2007 6:50 AM, Tamiri said…

anonymous with $100K: I think this is a gag. How can you write "My wife earns enough money to pay for a cleaning woman once a week and is a stay-at-home mom" - she makes money staying at home? Yet you write "I earn $100,000 per year", no plural "we earn".

At October 21, 2007 4:32 PM, Ahavah B. said…

Anonymous 7:40

If you are really in that much trouble, then you must understand that things CANNOT go on the way they have been. Things are going to have to be drastically changed until this situation is under control - serious belt tightening, to say the least. If you can admit that and accept that, then there is hope. If you can't, then you're doomed.

You didn't mention how old your youngest child is - every child you have who is at least 14 needs to get out there and get a part time job to help you get out of debt. You need to be honest with them and involve them in your budgeting process. If your youngest child is pre-school age (I am not in favor of putting kids younger than 4 in daycare) you wife needs to also get a part time job during school hours or make more $ at home.

And I agree with the comment above - a "stay at home mom" does NOT need a cleaning lady. You have got to get real, or things are only going to get worse.

There are no doubt other things that can be done, but only a hard honest look at where your money is going will help you figure out where to increase income and decrease spending.

If you would like to email me privately, I would be happy to show you how to set up a spreadsheet for bill paying and budgeting. This accomplishes three things - one, it shows you where the money is really going, and two, it shows where priorities are lopsided, and three, it provides a framework for structured bill paying instead of constant spending.

At October 21, 2007 4:42 PM, Ahavah B. said…

PS Anon 7:40

To contact me privately, click on my name highlighted above. It will go to the profile page, which lists my blog. The top message on the blog is for you.

Mike S. said...

Some other ideas not yet (I think) mentioned:

Buy clothes second hand

Depending on your arangements about tuition, you might save money by hiring a m'lamed rather than paying 10 tuitions. Especially if you can hire him for limudei kodesh in the early mornings and evenings and send the kids to public school for their secular education.

In my area stores have a hard time finding workers for night and Sunday shifts. You, your wife and any kids old enough might take one.

If you can, get rid of a car in favor of bicycling to work. It is both healthier and cheaper.

Outside the frum community, the first answr you would get is that you should have thought of the expense long before you got to the tenth kid. I understand the halachic and hashkafic issues with family planning in the frum community, but it does behoove frum families to think early about how they will pay the bills early on--either delaying marriage until there is either some capital or the spouses have sufficient education to earn enough to cover the bills, deciding to live in an inexpensive area, or something.

Mike S. said...

If one of you is both broadly knowledgable and cool under pressure, you might consider trying out for a TV quiz show such as "Jeopardy" or "Are you smarter than a 5th grader." If you win the hourly rate can't be beat.

Anonymous said...

how much can teenagers or even preteens work? their school hours are 8-4 + homework. and for boys the hours are considerably longer...

mlevin said...

Here in Brooklyn, orthodox families working teens are not an option. Many boy Yeshivahs are 6 days a week and boys don't come home until 8/9 pm. Working for them is simply not realistic. Girls have fewer hours, but they still have 6 days of school and homework and they have to help with younger siblings. Imagine just doing laundry for 12.

5 days per week schools for girls are more expensive, we are talking about 5K in tuition difference. It is probably the same for boys, but I don't have boys and do not know all the details.

I don't have a solution, beyond have smaller families if you can't afford a large one.

Juggling Frogs said...

The cleaning woman may yet be a bargain, if she helps keep shalom bait, and the family running on an even keel. Maybe she can come half as often?

We have a much smaller family - 5 kids, 4 in day school, >$60k in tuition. I'm a stay-at-home mother who is currently income-free.

I'm not sending the 3 year old to preschool, due in large part to the tuition. I'm enjoying her company and our relaxed schedule much more than when the others were in preschool.

We haven't sent the kids to camp in many years, but we have a fantastic time over summer vacation. We entertain our whole family for the whole Summer for the price of sending one kid to day camp for a week. (It buys a Summer's worth of art supplies and a membership at the Aquarium and the Science Museum.)

Also, for the boys between 11 and 18 years old, check out the Shomer Shabbat Boy Scouts. There is a Summer Camp at Camp Kunatah that costs $250/week sleep away, and it is a kosher and fantastic learning experience.

We rarely buy clothes because we have a network of sharing with other families. Boys' Shabbat clothes are a notable exception, as they are hard to find in good condition. When our son outgrows anything Shabbat-worthy, we ship it immediately to a family that can use it.

Our friends also have set up a book-sharing system for required school books. This can be arranged on an informal basis, with a families whose children's ages dove-tail.

I agree that being honest with the children is the best path. Letting them understand the situation can also lead to their input for creative and useful solutions.

May your bank balance never give you stress, and may your children always give you nachat. Best of luck!

All the best,

Juggling Frogs said...

Some more ideas:

If you have teen-aged girls, they can set up a "camp" for local younger kids during Summer vacation and during school breaks.

My kids aren't old enough to do this, but we know a number of families that have arranged this with much success. It's a resume-worthy learning experience for the "directors", they make some money, and they occupy themselves productively over the Summer.

A teenaged boy who was a great Chess player arranged a "Chess Camp" for boys 4 hours a day, charging $100/week/boy.

Another (home schooled) boy who had a keen interest in Medieval studies arranged a "Medieval Weaponry Camp" for the Summer and over school vacations. He taught a group of boys how to make armor, design a catapult, etc. (No real weapons or anything dangerous were used.)

Babysitting or tutoring are viable money-making opportunities for yeshiva kids. For boys old enough who can lein Torah, there are often small out-of-town shuls who need help with this.

Please make sure the school's financial department is fully aware of your situation. Perhaps they can increase the scholarship amounts, or offer a different arrangement, perhaps exchanging substitute teaching or office work for part of the it.

Orthodontia technology has changed much since I was a child. It used to be vital that the work be done as early as possible. Our dentist told me that (in the case of purely cosmetic, borderline, non-functional changes) it is fine to wait until adulthood, without incurring a great increase in the expense or length of time wearing braces.

Gifts can be scaled back significantly, without explanation. Anyone who doesn't understand is unworthy of receiving anything from you.

Food bills are often a major source of savings. Often, by rearranging the menu to include only seasonal items, shopping in bulk, and eliminating waste, food bills can be cut in half. (This topic could fill a couple of books...)

Don't discount the importance of attitude. Rather than thinking "What am I doing wrong, why can't this work?" try to think of the budget as a problem to be solved. You're looking for creative and applicable solutions that apply to your specific situation, not self-recriminations.

Embrace frugality and try to instill it in the children's outlook. This is the family's fun mission: to figure out how to do fun things without spending money. When they ask for something optional that is beyond the family's means, rather than "We can't afford that, I wish we could...." the attitude can be, "That looks SO cool! How could WE do something like that for free?"

Zach Kessin said...

Another (home schooled) boy who had a keen interest in Medieval studies arranged a "Medieval Weaponry Camp" for the Summer and over school vacations. He taught a group of boys how to make armor, design a catapult, etc. (No real weapons or anything dangerous were used.)

Wow the Jewish world is small. I know exactly who that young man is. We met him a few years ago at the SCA Pennsic wars. When I saw someone wearing a kippa who I didn't know. Good kid!

Ahavah B. said...

On the subject of food and utilities - it is absolutely worth it to change all of your lightbulbs to compact flouresents (by attrition, of course - not all at once).

In the fall and spring keep the windows open as much as possible (opened correctly, I might add - double hung windows work by allowing heat out the top and then cooler air comes in the bottom due to negative air pressure. So they have to be lowered at the top AND raised at the bottom, so the 2 panes are overlapped in the middle).

When you are using heat or A/C you should use the clear window plastic (the kind you use a blow-dryer to tighten) to stop energy loss. Instead of plain ceiling lights, change them all to ceiling fans - this will allow air to circulate better and cut down your need for A/C.

If you can, pull up any wall-to-wall carpet you have on the first floor. It cuts down on vacuuming quite a bit - regular floors can be swept with a broom easily. Also, if you haven't already done so, establish an absolutely no shoes worn in the house rule. Put in a shelf or rack near the door for them to take off their shoes. This will cut down greatly on dirt brought into the house from the outside world.

Don't buy name brand cleaners of any kind. Simple baking soda, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil will clean just about everything in the house - recipes for various cleaning jobs are easily available online.

Use a clothesline as much as possible for drying clothes - even indoors. There are very sturdy retractable clotheslines that you can put on your deck, porch, and across large family or living rooms - clothes can hang at night to dry indoors, too.

I imagine your water bill is fairly outrageous - if you don't already have a "bath schedule" then implement one - half the family one day and the other half the next, some in the morning and some at night. A "laundry schedule" is also good - assign two people per weekday as their day to do laundry. By combining their stuff, they will always have full loads. Tzitzits and other delicates can be hand washed by soaking in a plastic tub, so they never use electricity at all. Each child is responsible for helping with their own day.

We also have a "chore chart" listing what each child is supposed to do every day - even four year olds can set the table and clear it. (We have a photocopy of a Dr. Seuss character pointing to a place setting to show small kids where everything goes. I'm sure you can find something similar online.)

Hot rollers and curling irons and other such stuff should, for the duration of the emergency, be banned. You'd be amazed how much electricity they use. Irons, too, should be used sparingly. They are enormous energy hogs.

Each week (or two weeks) sit down and make a menu - and stick to it. No eating out. No snacking between meals except the very smallest children. No buying stuff you don't need for the menu, period. Dessert and wine only on Shabbat. Drop the soft drinks and juice drinks and start making lemonaide and iced tea. I also recommend a chart or spreadsheet that lists the prices of the things you usually buy at the grocery store. That way, you can use it to help formulate a menu that sticks to the budget.

For the meantime, drop everything but local landline phone service. People survived for thousands of years without a cellphone. There are some very cheap internet plans out there - here you can get one bundled with your local phone service for a very reasonable price. In the great scheme of things, you probably need the internet more than cellphones - there is info out there that can help you cut costs, budget, substitute for name brand items, comparison shop, etc. Even your local newspaper is probably online for free - most are.

But tuition is probably your biggest obstacle. You should seriously consider homeschooling.

SephardiLady said...

If I don't have some of the best commentors, I don't know who does. Thanks for all of the great ideas.

A Simple Jew said...

I tried unsucessfully to find your e-mail address so I could send this to you. I thought you might find it interesting.

G said...

Seems like it may be time for stay-at-home Mom to become get-a-job Mom.
Best case scenario a one of your schools as it may come w/ a tuition benefit.

SephardiLady said...

Homemaking is often more cost efficient that working when there are small children in the house. With 10 children all under 18, I can only imagine that full time work could cost the family. If you have to work summers (and let's face it, most of us do, saving camp tuition for 10 kids alone should make it more cost efficient to stay home). That is why I suggested finding part-time work on hours where family members can handle the babysitting for free. . . . not that that will be easy either.

Here is my past post on the subject on the second income:

In addition, the more kids you have, the more work running a household is.

No easy answers, that is for sure.

Anonymous said...

Take your showers at the local Y

Anonymous said...

I am the mother of a family of B"AH 11 expecting our tenth child, b'ezrat Hashem.

We have a family business so our income is not steady, but usually middle class. B"H we manage to live very well and are debt free.

We do live "out of town" and left the NY metro area in order to cut our cost of living in half.

We have only major medical insurance (saves 10k per year) and treat most things ourselves at home rather than running to a doctor for every sneeze and sprain. We pay for the dentist and eye glasses, but B"H my kids have only needed 5 fillings between them. There is also a dental clinic and our dentist volunteers there so we can make an appointment with our regular dentist for a fraction of what he usually costs.

We cannot afford yeshiva education so we homeschool. My Shomer Shabbat parents also could not afford yeshiva, summer camp, vacations in the mountains, a year in Israel to learn etc and I have never believed this to be a compromise to one's observance of halacha.

My 19 year old has completed her degree online and is now working and saving for her own home. My 17 year old is working on her degree and also part time in a store. My two high schoolers help out with their elementary and preschool aged siblings.

We divide housework by person, room and day of the week (with a family of our size, bathrooms are cleaned daily and floors washed every day). We do a lot of laundry and a commercial front loader paid for itself in water and electricity in the first 5 months.
We do coupon clip and buy in bulk. It's a fun game to see how much you can get for how little.

There is a fantastic Thrift shop here that could be "Neiman Marcus's clearance center" and my girls do put together a look that is tzniut and fashionable.

We eat a lot of soups and stews, especially from the crockpot, bake our bread,cakes and cookies. We do not use prepared or convenience foods. I buy crates of imperfect produce to cook with and homemade stocks are great protein stretchers that our grandmothers relied upon.

We eat oatmeal for breakfast; cold cereals are expensive, less healthy and less filling. Lunches are leftovers from dinner and the crock pot lets people on different schedules eat a dinner that is not burned.

No one feels deprived in our family and in fact my kids friends love to eat at our house.

I buy organic produce from a local farm coop and find that I spend less than at the supermarket or big box store. Another bonus is that they deliver which saves gas. I buy milk (10 gallons a week) from a local farm too. We make salami, sausages and other delicacies which serves two purposes, one is that these things are delicious and great budget stretchers(which is why they were invented) and the other is that it is a project the little ones really enjoy.

My kids do not drink juice or soda, only water I learned from my mother that grocery dollars are better spent on whole fruits than processed juices which are pure sugar.

We drive an 8 year old Passenger van that gets good gas mileage less than 5k per year and enjoy "free" days at local museums, libraries and parks.

I own a European semi custom that I paid $32 for (I have worn synthetics, blends and human hair too). I wash and blow it myself but love the vintage scarves and flapper hats which I have been collecting shamelessly since my teens.