Got Orthonomics in your Email Box?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Destructive to Wealth: Confused as to Your Money Starts and Ends

A "very wealthy" Chassidish man writes to Dr. Yael Respler of the Jewish Press seeking her advice on a dilemma which is apparently quite common, was previously unknown to me (Dr. Respler sees this issue in her own practice amongst Chassidic clientele). I have no idea what standard is being used to measure "very wealthy" (income? savings? property? a healthy combination of all of the above?), but this man and his wealthy friends find themselves paying for their siblings' weddings, from the wedding itself to the accompanying jewelry/shtreimels and setup of the home, as well as providing "bailouts" and what have you.

In the name of kibud av v'em, this man and his wife and others are at a loss as to what to do except to publicize the isue. They recognize the situation is "outrageous" but feel powerless.

Dr. Respler labels the behavior as "narcissistic" and isn't exactly sure what causes such behavior, the heter being that others find it acceptable.

I'd like to come from a different angle inspired by both Pirkei Avot ("What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine" is [the characteristic of a] rasha) and an interesting discussion in The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy and other financial books I have read. Interestingly enough, those who do better financially and build wealth do not co-mingle their own means with the means of others, namely family. They do not place their own parents (or in in this case, child's) wealth as an asset on their mental balance sheet. They know where their means start and end and don't allow the means of others to play into their own calculations regarding lifestyle and spending. Doing such is a destructive to wealth, to say nothing of the midda demonstrated. I think the situation of the letter writer is indicative this idea.

Dr. Respler suggests potentially bringing in a Rav who can explain what responsibilities belong with whom. I don't know what polite solution exists in circles where funds are co-mingled on mental balance sheets and bills can simply be sent to a child, parent, or grandparent, and uttering a word might be considered an affront. Nor can anyone say what position a Rav would take given that "some of the expenses that you mentioned are actually expected in a shidduch, and it is a big mitzvah for you to help your parents cover the cost of making a wedding for your siblings (hachnassas kallah). " My own option is that providing such funds only continues to enable the parents, who are caught between their own bad habits and the bad habits ingrained in the mores of the kehilla.

I do know that all individuals/couples/family units are well served by establishing boundaries, financial and otherwise, with family. Hopefully writing a letter to the Jewish Press will solve the issue for this chassidish couple, but chances are the only solution that can even begin to resolve such a situation (the immediate result could include some unpleasant fallout) will include a face-to-face sit down where firm boundaries and limits are established.

39 comments:

undowr said...

1) Wow, Dr. Respler finally has a column discussing problems among Hassidim. In the past she has had one sided columns praising them, particularly with marriage related matters.

2) Since when do Hassidim read the Jewish Press? I would say that the overwhelming majority don't. Perhaps these are more modern ones.

LeahGG said...

This is the same problem I keep seeing all over the place. People making decisions and expecting someone else to foot the bill.

I feel like if you're a very wealthy person and your sibling needs help to get married off, you might want to offer some help, but the sibling/parents would be crude to ask.

When I got married, I didn't ask my parents for anything. They told me what help they were willing to offer, and I said thank you and figured that into a wedding budget.

All too often, I hear about couples planning a wedding and presenting their parents with the bill afterward.

Worse, I recently heard of a couple who was all but forced (by the in-laws) to make a down payment on their child's apartment - the couple themselves rent, and their child & the new spouse both work.

I get that family can give you a boost, but it should be given on the giver's terms, not on those of the recipient.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to stop a trend that you have started. If you pay for siblings A,B, and C, its very hard to tell siblings D, E and F that the rules have changed, particularly if the wealthy sibling's financial circumstances haven't changed for the worse. If he is so wealthy, as he likes to describe himself, then maybe there is a middle ground -- i.e. he could provide the siblings with a means to earn some of the costs of the wedding. If not, maybe he should say "I gave x for the other siblings and I will do the same for you if I am able, but everyone in the family needs to know that that is the end of the giving."

Mike S. said...

Depends some on circumstances. Think of the immigrant family that could afford to send one kid to college with the understanding he would help the rest of the family. Of course, now the parents could help them all equally and have everyone take out student loans equally, but 50 or 70 years ago that wasn't as much of an option. Or where the family saved up for one ticket to America with the expectation that when he had earned the money the family member who got it would bring the rest of the family over. (This was before limits on immigration.)

of course these examples, which were once common, are outdated, but I'd be surprised if there weren't a modern equivalent.

Paying Parent said...

Interesting Read.... (slightly off topic)
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/nyregion/21parochial.html

rosie said...

believe it or not, even I was horrified.

CJ Srullowitz said...

This is a classic "No-Par Situation." Either the wealthy brother can be a hero or he can be a jerk. He has no Goldilocks option.

One suggestion might be to write one huge check and tell them that's all he is going to give. If they decide to spend it all on one night - wedding dinner, chassan gifts, kallah gifts, new furniture - that's their choice. Or they could scale down the wedding considerably and decide to pocket the money to support them for 2-3 years.

Let the Chassan and Kallah learn (painfully, I admit) that there is a limit, and let them appreciate how money that can last 1000 days can be spent in one, if they follow current protocol. The choice is theirs.

The shift will be slow, but I believe it will come.

Zach Kessin said...

The problem is that this guy is going to go broke. There is no way he can out earn the rest of his family spending money like crazy and assuming that he will pick up the tab.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else find either of the following things about the letter and the response odd:

1) The letter writer goes out of his way several times to say is he is wealthy, and has wealthy friends and even signs the letter "A Rich Chossid."

2) In the reply the Dr. gives a specific psychiatric diagnosis (yes, narcisim is treated as a psychiatric disorder in the DSM, although it also has a lay meaning, but when used by a licensed therapist rather than Dear Abby, the technical meaning is implied) without having all the facts and without having examined the person pinned with this diagnosis.

Anonymous said...

It's sort of like what we see in tort cases. The one with the deep pockets is responsible.

Anonymous said...

After thinking about it, I've come to the conclusion that it's just a different worldview. It's an old world approach in which the family member who's made it takes care of the rest of the extended clan. If you imagine you are living in 19th century Russia, this approach makes perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:33: I agree, except in 19th century russia the peasants (which we were) did not expect that everyone should have weddings and gifts like that of the nobility. Our ancestors likely were much more frugal and self-sufficient. I doubt there was a sense of entitlement.

Anonymous said...

I also felt that diagnosing people you haven't met is fairly odd.
I don't think this is a real letter.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with a wealthy relative sharing his good fortune with his friends and family. It's the same as winning the lottery. As long as the relatives are not spending the money on drugs, I don't see anything really wrong with this behavior.

Dave said...

Really, not even the part where the wealthy relative is feeling used and taken advantage of?

Orthonomics said...

Clearly anonymous is reading a different letter than I am reading. The letter writer did not volunteer to pay these bills, he was sent the bill without a consult. Because of culture, he feels powerless to say no.

As for the comment about money not being spent on drugs, I would argue that by providing such funds he is addicting them to a lifestyle that is destructive, much as providing them with drug money would be.

Thanks for the dissenting comment, however.

tesyaa said...

Because of culture, he feels powerless to say no.

I'd say more dysfunctional family dynamics than culture. There are dysfunctional families in every culture.

megapixel said...

many very wealthy people are hit upon for money by others who feel, they have so much, why shouldnt i get some of it. he should be happy its just his family and not strangers...

I know a wealthy guy who sends a thousand dollars to a widow he knows, before pesach every year. well, one year she decided that she needed to get away and a hotel would be perfect. she sent him the hotel's bill...

CJ Srullowitz said...

Megapixel,

Was the rich guy upset about that? Or did he take it in stride?

Anonymous said...

My dear brother, who is MO, is "very wealthy," meaning that he has a net worth of around $2 million, is constantly being hit up for money by the local Chabad House rabbi. He loves playing the big shot and getting honored. Unfortunately, much of the money he gives them comes at the expense of his IRA contribution and daughers' college fund. I have a feeling that he is not alone. Some wealthy people like showing off with their contributions and then, like my brother complain that they are taken advantage of when they realize that they've put themselves in a bad situation.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:06: Yes, I think the "rich chosside" letter writer probably falls into the category of those who show off their wealth and then regret the expectations that creates in some others.

BTW: Very interesting that an MO is funding a Chabad house.

Anonymous said...

In my family I have the opposite problem. I earn a lot more than my siblings, although they have no idea how much more since I live quite modestly (drive used Toyotas, small house with no granite or stainless in the kitchen, etc.) but they know I am in a profession that tend to pay pretty well. I try to give my siblings money for things like groceries and expenses they pay for our parents which the siblings can't really afford comfortably but I can (I pay for the home health aid and some other things directly, but I'm not local so can't do the grocery shopping and other extras) but my checks get ripped up or go uncashed so I have to resort to slipping 20's into their wallets when I am in town and buying things they can't rip up like gift certificates. I realize they want to do their part to help my parents but they do all the heavy lifting and I only write checks. Among work colleagues and non-jewish friends I know a lot of people who would never dream of accepting money from a sibling for luxuries like big weddings or jewelry and would be embarrased to accept money even in an emergency.

Anonymous said...

"Some wealthy people like showing off with their contributions and then, like my brother complain that they are taken advantage of when they realize that they've put themselves in a bad situation."

And I know people, not religious, that have big houses, big boats, fancy cars (not stupid Hondas like Teaneck, actually expensive cars, 80k-120k), and not a penny to their name.

People like to show off their wealth.

In Orthodox circles, you do it by being a Macher.

Not sure how that is ANY different that the fancy car, given that the big donations to buy fancy things may be IRS Charity, "Masser" Charity, but certainly not feeding poor people, etc.

Anonymous said...

Anon 22: I wouldn't pin this just on the orthodox. Plenty of other people target their charitable donations to institutions that are not involved with helping the poor, fighting disease and similar ideals. It is sad, however, that giving money for a fancy building gets more recognition than programs to help abused children, to provide visitation for housebound elderly, job training/retraining for the poor unemployed and, oh yeah, for healthy food for the poor.

JS said...

Article about the difficulty of saving for both retirement and college at the same time (something it seems yeshiva tuition paying parents are doing neither of):

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39287925/ns/business-personal_finance/

Paying Parent said...

If you are paying Yeshiva tuition, you are paying the equivalent of a state college tuition every year for 12 years. When me and my siblings went to college, my parents threw a party- they paid less for college than HS. We each went to the school that gave us the largest academic scholarship.

Anonymous said...

The article is too vague to be meaningful. We don't know that the "writer"* cannot afford what he's being asked for. If that's true, it's one thing. But if he can afford it easily, what's the point of being "very wealthy"** if not using the wealth to help out family?

That's not to say that there are not bounds of chutzpah that the parents could overstep, but that's an issue of about midos and ehrlicheit, not dollars and cents. I don't know what expertise Dr. Respler has in the latter.

* I've never known any real chassidim who write in the style of the letter. Could it have been faked to create an interesting column?

** I'd hope "very wealthy" means a good deal more than having $2 million as another poster uses the term. If that's what he's got and has a big and young michpacha, then he really can't be paying for many extra weddings.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:31 $2 million in net worth(particularly if not counting a primary residence) probably would put a family in the top 5% for a couple in their mid-50's to mid-60's (peak net worth years), and would be a much higher percentile for younger people. If he not only has $2 million but also has a high income, then I disagree that your conclusion that someone with that net worth would not be very wealthy. For example someone with 2 million net worth at age 40 is already more than all set for retirement if he can live off his earned income till around age 60(including tuition and weddings) and invests conservatively.
Bottom line is what is wrong with us if we don't think that 2 million usually is a boat load of money, and more than many will earn in a life time. That doesn't mean it can be splurged or wasted, but we need a reality check here.

Anonymous said...

A local Lubavitch Rabbi recently made me feel terrible that I was not able to buy a $3600 raffel ticket to support a camp in Michigan. I was laid off last year and had previously been very generous supporter of his. He actually had the chutzpah to suggest that perhaps my being laid off was somehow by fault and that I was letting down the campers by not putting by donation on my Visa card. I came to the conclusion that these guys are just out of touch with reality because they do not work in real world.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:20,

He is in the real world. You were his mark, he sucked you dry. He sees that your luck has run out and there is nothing more, so he tries to squeeze one last donation out. Maybe it works 1 out of 5 times, might as well try.

No need for him to worry, you're a dead end, on to the next mark.

Sorry, these roving bands of fund raisers follow the same model as con men.

Anonymous said...

Did I read that right - $3600 for a raffle ticket? I hope there is a decible point missing somewhere and that there are two zeros after it. A raffle ticket isn't even a deductible charitable donation. And he tried to make some one laid off feel guilty for not giving to a camp, something that usually is a luxury with some small exceptions like disabled or sick kids.
In defense of chabad rabbis, a local chabad rabbi I support gave me no pushback when I told him I couldn't give as much as he asked because I was prioritizing local food banks and homelessness programs since no one can get themselves and their families on their feet when they are hungry and/or homeless.

Anonymous said...

It was indeed $3600.00. The Rabbi actually asked if I had any friends who would be able to give instead of me and later told a mutual friend of ours about my "dire" situation out of "concern" for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. Sorry to hear that Anon 2:52 - both about your layoff and the unfortunate statements you have to deal with as a result.

Anonymous said...

“Dr. Respler suggests potentially bringing in a Rav who can explain what responsibilities belong with whom.”

The entire premise of Dr. Yael and her ilk is predicated on the norms for “support” or responsibilities being based on some rule book or something in Shulchan Aruch that a Rav can weigh in on. Everyone knows what I am talking about. It’s the “that’s the way it is done” people who are following some unwritten code (heck, by now someone probably has had the chutzpa to put it into print and sell it). We all have heard about the various “gifts” that need to be given to the chosen and to the kallah at defined points in their relationship (e.g., the bracelets, the watch, the pearls, the sheitels, etc.) The baseline should be that if someone wants to get married, he/shewill they live financially independently (no support, no monthly checks, etc.). If they cannot do this, then they are not ready to get married, despite the date on their birth certificate telling them otherwise. Sure, if there is a shortfall and the couple is just starting out, and parents are in a position to assist, then that is understandable. But, somewhere along the line, the concept of “financial independence” has fallen out of favor in the Yeshivish community and now even has a “goyishe tam” to it. This posture is unprecedented in Jewish history.

The context of entitlement today is so off-base it’s ridiculous. What is more absurd is when the system and the parents buy into this and promote and enable this culture. After all, no parent wants to have to admit at the weekly Kiddush that his 21 year old daughter is still single. That’s just one cart that is driving the horse.

One issue with the “machers’ is that they are beholden to the system that made them into machers and keeps them as machers through honor and flattery. Guys like this love to hear that they are “Baalei Tzedaka” and “Machzik Torah”. As such, they are in too deep and are powerless to buck the very system which energizes them.

To Anonymous at 8:28 AM on 9/21: In fairness to the letter writer, please note that letters to the Editor and Columnists typically go through a dose of editing, some more and some less. In almost all cases in which the letters are written by the unnamed, it is the Editor or columnist who is selecting something either fitting or catchy to label the writer.

Anonymous said...

There is no way for a girl to get married in the frum world without a dowry. In other words, there are fewer good boys than good girls, it's a market that favors boys, so the parents of boys require dowries. This is not called a dowry - it is called support. As in "We're asking for five years." Or "We're looking for long term support." The engagement and chasanah gifts are only part of the obligation. The real obligation is the agreement to support the husband in kollel for a specified number of years.

Anonymous said...

So what's wrong with supporting the Kollel? Does not the giver also benefit from the honor of supporting a scholar? There is no better investment than ensuring that the next generation of scholars can continue their holy work without interuption.
A True Macher

Dr. E said...

To the True Macher:

If there was some objective vetting process to determine the potential "scholars" you might have a point. But the high percentage of guys going into Kollel today is more a function of social norms and peer pressure than Talmudic acumen. They will ultimately have the worst of both worlds. Poverty and underachievement in learning, when they cannot cut it/and or make the necessary sacrifices. As such, I ain't investing in those futures.

Anonymous said...

I am not Orthodox but I worked for 5 years at a Yeshiva where I got to know many of the families very well. My observation is that many of the people I came in contact with were extremely narccisistic and that Orthodox culture tends to reinforce such behavior by constantly emphasizing the supposed superiority of observant Jews. This of course did not apply to every single person, but there was a definite pattern. I suppect that this might stem from cognitive dissonance, as you sacrifice a lot to live the Orthodox lifestyle. A second observation was that many of those I came to know were not even true believers but just going through the motions so that they would fit in socially.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:42 - nothing wrong with supporting Kollel if its voluntary. If its a form of blackmail or extortion to "marry off" a daughter, then there are serious problems.