Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Getting Started on the Right Foot:
Develop a Sense of Control and Choosing Your Friends

I have written about developing a "Can Do" attitude before and I think it is particularly important when it comes to handing personal finances. The comment has been made that (excluding the very wealthy) a frum Jew will not be able to live debt free and/or build up savings. If one adopts such an attitude, and many have, he/she takes a position of powerlessness. Sitting in the backseat, the attitude becomes, "what can I do?" Once one has accepted lack of savings, debt, living beyond their mean as "normal," they become resigned to their situation.

I prefer an attitude of control over finances. The paradigm might look something like this:

  • I put in appropriate effort towards earning a living (getting a proper education, not letting my ego interfere with earning a living, maintaining integrity, continuing to develop new skills, new contacts, seeking increased opportunities, etc.)
  • Hashem blesses my efforts by granting the support I need.
  • I exercise control over my budget by making choices according to the means I have been given (not worrying too much about what "they system" requires of me or what "the Goldberg's" are doing).
I've worked with a handful of people on budgets and there is a different approach between those who are tend to demonstrate a greater sense of control and those who lack a sense of control. The person who is resigned and lacks a sense of control will start the budgeting process by telling you about all the expenses they have to meet. The person who seeks greater control tends to start the budgeting process by looking at sources of income first. Perhaps they seek greater income, but their current plans revolve around what they have, not what they must have. Most of us probably fall somewhere between "resigned" and "in control." A look at some of the comments in money saving idea posts will clearly demonstrate this human characteristic.

The book I reviewed via another finance blogger's book review is a good example of a completely resigned attitude. In the book Strapped: Why American's 20-and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead, individuals and couples make shortsighted and expensive choices in terms of education, employment, relationships, weddings, childcare, and more, and then wonder why they just can't get ahead. Fortunately there is another book out there that isn't offering up the victim mentality on a silver platter. I too have not read this book yet, but would like to precisely because it promotes what I believe is a healthy "can do" attitude. Personal finance blogger Trent (A Simple Dollar) writes a very positive review of the book "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream." This book has 14 chapters where the author shows that creativity, persistence, motivation to change, delayed gratification, and frugality, will result in getting ahead. Trent writes "the primary lesson [in Chapter 10] is playing the game with the hand you’re dealt. If you spend all your time complaining and griping about the situation you’re handed, you’re going to simply miss out on tons of chances to succeed."

Now would be a good point to insert a word about the friends you choose. Middle class society in general, and frum society in particular, tells us that a whole litany of things are a necessity. Of course, some things are highly desirable or even a necessity, but that doesn't eliminate the fact that there are alternatives and choices in life. Friends ("circles" and social groups) are a powerful influence in our lives, after all we are social creatures.

A person who wants to be able to more comfortably make choices that will allow him/her to live within their means would be wise to seek friendship with those who do live a more frugal lifestyle. The family that spends $30,000 a year on food isn't likely to let you know when pasta is on sale 2/$1 at the grocery store. The family that goes broke after taking their children on daily chol ha'moed trips and plying the kids with gifts and nosh isn't likely to invite your kids over for backyard games, nor accept your invitation for a trip to the park. The mother who has full time household help, isn't likely to agree to a babysitting exchange so you and she an get some much needed work one.

A college student seeking a less expensive living situation isn't going to find the girls whose credit card bills are paid off by mom and dad every month, no matter what the balance with no questions asked, a likely candidate to share extremely small living quarters. A single bochur whose friends all take their dates on $100 first dates (I read Lakewood has a dating fund so everyone can be "equal"), isn't likely to have the guts to take his shidduch date for a cup of coffee. But if he makes friends with some guys who do this, it becomes a more palatable option. A girl who is getting married and lives in a world where all her friends are receiving a laundry list of jewlery and other luxury items, isn't likely to make the suggestion that the chatan forego pearl earrings in the yichud room, unless she has made friends that have done without. A family in a social circle where all the kids go away to sleepaway camp, is a lot less likely to consider day camp or piecing together some activities as a possible alternative.

I'd say it is important for like minded parents to actively form connections with like-minded parents. As it is said, "there is strength in numbers." It is really difficult to speak out about school policy, be it an issue with cleanliness, a religious issue, bullying, the cost of an activity/trip, or some other issue. It is a lot easier to affect change when more than one squeaky wheel is willing to speak out.

Of course, one can have friends of all stripes (and it is certainly helpful to have a wide variety of friends when it comes to networking), and I feel fortunate to have many friends of many different income levels and spending styles. But, when you are trying to keep your lifestyle under control, it is important to have company.


Anonymous said...

SL -- I love you and your blog -- but I think it is completely slanted to the perspective of stay at home mothers, where knowing when pasta is on sale is the absolute virtue. I know this isn't the point of your post, but it keeps coming up over and over again. If some people have decided that having a parent (usually the mother) home is worth every sacrifice (not just buying food on sale), or if a mom can't bear to leave her babies (an emotional luxury), that's a different blog. I think.

Orthonomics said...

I'm going to go back and edit to add in other scenarios. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. One's friends - the people one spends the most amount of time with and the people from whom one seeks advice - seems to receive short shrift when considering important areas of our lives such as finance. It's tough to be the only one in a group of friends who hasn't recently purchased that new big screen TV, doesn't have the expensive cable package, or who is still driving 10+ year old cars, or who isn't sending the kids to sleepaway camp, isn't spending many tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah, etc. Having like-minded friends not only makes one less likely to want to keep up with the Joneses but also makes one feel like one isn't "missing out."

Another point about friends, is that it's important to have friends that are trying to better their financial situation on top of being frugal and saving. When one has friends that are seeking out advanced degrees or looking for high-paying careers, it can inspire one to pursue higher education as well and consider more lucrative opportunities given one's skills and abilities. Having friends that are go-getters can be a good kick in the pants for one who would normally not try to better one's situation.

It's a matter of having the right kind of peer pressure.

When one has friends with these two traits - seeking to advance oneself while being frugal and saving - there's no limit to what can be accomplished.

Anonymous said...

There is no reason why you can't shop sales and have two full time working parents. Stores are open at night & Sundays when one can go with a list and the other stay home with the children.

alpidarkomama said...

WOW! In all of my years of musing about living a responsibly frugal content lifestyle I really never thought of considering friendships this way. I look around me and realize that is pretty much what I have done.

JS, your first paragraph described our lifestyle to a tee. The thing is, we're CONTENT with that. I do have friends that do buy all those things, but I'm not envious at all. I don't see frugality as being only for the financially strapped. To me, it's a responsible way of spending the money hashem supplies to us. Frugality is not about suffering from lack. One can also be a go-getter and be frugal at the same time - out of choice. One can have a very successful career and still be frugal. This is not the same as miserly. It has to do with living a very simple life that is not full of all these distractions.

We have a VERY medium-sized income with 6 in the family, no debt, our mortgage should be paid off after 10 years total, zero tuition bill for as far as we can see, and I am home with the kids. We have no DESIRE for all the extras. For us, frugality has been an utter blessing. We feel wealthy beyond compare even though we can't buy much beyond our actual needs. And the children learn this too. My daughter was shrieking with happiness when she got a seashell as a little present every night of channukah. Trips to the woods, the park, etc. during chol hamoed are a lot of fun. And my children have never, not once, expressed any envy of the couple of friends they have that have a wealthier lifestyle.

Anyway... Orthonomics is hands-down my favorite blog. I feel like there is SOMEONE out there that looks at these things in similar ways. So... THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - of course you can shop sales with 2 working parents. What I find I can't do is be on top of ALL the sales, ALL the coupons, etc. At a certain point time with the kids comes first. I can't make a second income out of frugality, which is what a truly frugal stay at home parent tries to do. You know what? I don't have to make a second income out of it, because my (actual) income from working out of the house more than makes up for the babysitter, the work and commuting expenses, the sales I miss, etc. etc.

ProfK said...

I agree that having close friends with similar attitudes towards finances and spending can make things more comfortable, but I would take things a step further. It's not only friends but communities that can make a difference. Some communities apply more pressure to conform to "community standards" than others do. Some communities have a more "live and let live" attitude. Some communities are more expensive to live in than others even from a plain economic viewpoint; the rents in Brooklyn are more expensive than the rents in SI, and certainly more expensive than most points west. Sometimes a change in living venue can allow you to live a saner economic life, or even to be able to afford more on the same amount of money that seemed like not enough in a different geographic location.

rosie said...

There are lots of different crowds in Brooklyn. Some crowds are big spenders and some focus on other things. I have davened in shuls in Brooklyn where the women and girls were not expensively dressed. The same rent that will provide a 2 bedroom apartment in another community will only provide one bedroom in Brooklyn but many families live in one bedroom apartments until they have 3 kids. A family in a Brooklyn tenement does not have a lawn to maintain, snow to plow, or property taxes. Rent covers heat. There are stores in all parts of Brooklyn with cheaper clothes and Jewish people do shop in those stores.

ProfK said...

But that's my point. If, as you say, some people live in a one bedroom apartment until they have three kids, a one bedroom apartment in a different area will cost less. The lawn, snow, taxes and heat apply to apartments wherever you rent them, so they aren't an issue until you buy a house. Yes, there are some outlying Brooklyn areas where the women aren't fashion plates, but not in the general Midwood/Borough Park/Williamsburg area. And "cheaper" is a relative word. Sure, there are cheaper stores in downtown Brooklyn and in some of the outlying areas, and yes, some Jews shop in those areas. And a larger percentage shop on the various "Avenues" where the "frum" clothing stores are, when they aren't shopping the various fashion "Avenues" in Manhattan. In general, I'll still stand behind my statement that it is cheaper to live outside of Brooklyn than to live in Brooklyn. It's not just housing and clothing. When we moved out of Brooklyn to SI our homeowners insurance was and is much cheaper and our car insurance is also much cheaper.

alpidarkomama said...

That's for sure, ProfK. The mortgage on our 3bed/2bath/1700sqft place is about 1/3 of what most people pay to rent a 2 bed in Brooklyn.

nmf #7 said...

So true. Thank you for this post!

Ilana said...

I would extend this to apply to children, too. I have friends with many different financial approaches. Some are into saving, like me, and others are more into spending. I am not envious of those who spend more, and am *really* not envious of their financial stress. But most of my kids' friends spend money much more easily than we do. And that *can* make them feel like they are missing out. Bigger kids (teens and pre-teens) want to give birthday presents that are "respectable". Their friends might think nothing of going out for pizza or a movie -- or both. Bowling parties are fairly common among my children's friends. If most of my kids' friends have their own room, it is harder for my (older) kids to be content with sharing their bedroom with siblings.

I am often frustrated that my kids don't have more friends with similar spending habits and values. I do the best I can to instill the financial values I believe in, but it often feels like an uphill struggle.

Lion of Zion said...


where do you live?

rosie said...

I don't live in Brooklyn (although some of my children do). I was recently on 13th Ave and there were chain stores there such as Children's Place and Payless and Jewish families were shopping there. Some Jewish owned stores had some sidewalk deals that were good and Jews own bargain places such as Pergament.
While there is not doubt that housing and insurance is cheaper almost anywhere outside of NY, it may be harder to find Shomer Shabbos employment outside of NY. For example, if a doctor is training he may have an easier time finding a Shomer Shabbos residency in NY. Such residencies probably also exist in places such as Chicago but it is not cheap to live there either.
People who lack professional training are often at the mercy of Shomer Shabbos businesses to hire them since many companies do not want to start giving days off for religious observance. Businesses that operate 7 days a week can legally say that they need an employee that is available on Saturday. I have seen qualified people turned down for jobs due to Shabbos. In smaller communities, the Jewish owned businesses are saturated with help already. While NY is crowded, crumbling, expensive, competitive, etc, it may be a necessary evil to learn to live there without going into debt.

Esther said...

I'd also like to add another component - choosing your mentors according to these standards. (Rabbi/rebbetzin, older families that you spend time with, etc.) This is especially for singles and newly married couples, since people will form a picture in their mind of what married frum life looks like from these examples - and I'd say especially for baalei teshuvah. If you're used to spending time around families who live modestly, you'll think of that as normal. If you select as your mentors people who tell you to just charge everything to credit cards or that of course your in-laws will pay for everything, this will seem to be a normal approach to things.

Rosie - I am not sure to what extent you have experience living outside of New York, but i really don't think there is this extreme lack of Shomer Shabbos jobs that you portray. I suspect that there are frum people who may not present themselves in a professional manner when looking for work, may not have the writing or speaking skills that are expected in a professional setting, and then when they don't get the job they think it's because of Shabbos. I'm not saying that your specific friend didn't have this problem, but I don't think it's as widespread as you make it out. i think more likely it's an issue SephardiLady has discussed before, where many frum people aren't getting the appropriate job skills and training, and then can't find well-paying employment, and/or have expectations for jobs that are not realistic. (I think SL had a post about people who expect not to have to do entry-level work, who want to take off every Friday afternoon rather than just leaving early in the winter, etc.)

rosie said...

If people are not in a position to open their own business or they lack professional or technical skills, there will be scant work for them outside NY. Professionals or those trained in vocations can work anywhere but that does not describe many frum Jews who are only yeshiva educated. I live outside of NY and see the difficulty that many people have finding Shomer Shabbos jobs. If all of those who grew up in, let's say Kiryat Joel (Monroe NY) would try to get a job in Cleveland, how many would succeed? In NY, they can work for Jewish owned businesses who want to have Jews for employees. How many non-Jewish businesses in mid-western cities want employees who have long curly peyos and need Shabbos and yomtov off? Maybe a MO who is shomer Shabbos, professionally trained, and lives in the regular society could find a job there but I have yet to see a chassidishe employee in any midwestern Walmart. It is hard for non-Jews without training or skills to get jobs that pay reasonably, all the more so for someone who is Shomer Shabbos.
I am not speaking of professionals or business owners. I am giving the example of the average ultra-Orthodox yeshiva graduate who can't even change the oil in his car.

ProfK said...

Re "Businesses that operate 7 days a week can legally say that they need an employee that is available on Saturday" that is NOT legally the case. COLPA took a case up to the Supreme Court decades ago that decided that question. If anything, the opposite is true: businesses open 7 days a week must make accomodations for those whose religious observance is on Saturday and/or Sunday. Only those businesses which can prove unequivocally that the job entails necessary weekend work, including Saturday and/or Sunday, are exempted. For instance, a business that operates only weekend classes for business people can state that, since they only operate on the weekends, Saturday work is a requirement.

Re the medical residencies, there is a difference between a Shomer Shabbos residency, which only a very few places in NY offer, and a residency, but both are covered under the case law mentioned above. The case that was brought to the Supreme Court involved a nurse who was fired when she told her hospital that she couldn't work Friday night/Shabbos day. The Court pointedly mentioned that hospitals cannot make the claim of requiring Shabbos work since they are open 24/7 and schedule accomodations are quite possible and are made for other reasons all the time. This would apply to medical residents as well. I have four cousins' children who all did their residencies way out of town and had no problem with getting accomodations for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Re the chosid working in WalMart out of town, do you really see many chasidim working in WalMart in the NY Metropolitan area?

Anonymous said...

I pay my kids' credit cards every month and rarely have to ask questions. Of course, they have been taught the difference between necessities and luxuries and the charge is usually reasonable grocery bills, text books and the like. They ask before buying clothing or eating out.
I do not think frugal kids need to avoid them.

Orthonomics said...

Mike S, Maybe better wording would help make my point more clearly. But we all know the type of girl who won't bunk up to save a few hundred a month.

I knew a (non-Jewish) girl who would definitely qualify. Nothing was out of question to the parents. In college she had her own maid.

Commenter Abbi said...

"If people are not in a position to open their own business or they lack professional or technical skills, "

Rosie, this is exactly the problem. Who in their right mind,in 2009, expects to be able to support a family of 6+ kids without professional or technical skill or the ability to open and successfully run their own business? That's exactly the craziness. It has nothing to do with Shabbos or something inherent in being frum. It's the idiocy of the expectation that everyone can just get along with davening and shnurring jobs off of other frum businesses because college is "evil".

Have degree will travel. My father was an accountant and for the last 20 years has been a life insurance agent. He's never once encountered a problem of keeping shabbos and he's never lived in New York.

Scraps said...

I once had a roommate who wanted to live like she was still in her parents' (rather lavish) home and outfit our apartment accordingly. It was really hard to explain to her that this was entirely out of my budget range - she simply didn't get it. She was used to having her parents cover all her expenses, and she just couldn't understand why I thought it was unreasonable to buy "shared" items (as in, splitting the price) that were more expensive than we needed. However, once her parents stopped paying for everything for her, she slowly started to come around.

My parents live very financially responsible lives. They carry very little debt (when possible, none), don't buy expensive things, don't take lavish vacations. Truth be told, growing up, it was hard sometimes to be the only kid in class not wearing name-brand clothes (I wasn't allowed to set foot in Gap or Limited until I could pay for my own stuff), but now my shopping habits are very similar to my parents', except that I've stepped it up and buy the name-brand stuff on clearance. ;-) I am grateful to my parents for instilling a sense of financial responsibility in me by their good example.

Oh, and about coupon clipping and shopping sales - both of my parents worked full time. Sunday morning, it was a family activity to go through the coupons and the supermarket circulars and make up the weekly shopping list. My sister and I clipped coupons and learned from a fairly young age to look through the circulars for deals. I personally loved it, and many of my friends come to me now for advice on where to buy this or that, because they know I'll know the best prices around! Yet another good life habit instilled by my parents, b"H. :)

Anonymous said...


"If people are not in a position to open their own business or they lack professional or technical skills, there will be scant work for them outside NY."

Never mind Shabbos, how much work is there for unskilled labor on any day of the week even *in* NY? And how do you propose to support a typical Jewish family (several children, tuition, kosher food, tzedaka, not to mention high taxes in the NY area) on unskilled labor wages ($6-$10/hour)? If the Yeshiva isn't teaching vocational skills or preparing the kids for college, the Yeshiva is failing them.

Unknown said...

Choosing good friend it takes in to account a lot because our attitude will be affected by them!!
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