Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Cheshvan 5760 - October 20, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
A Gemach Manager's Diary

by Chaim Walder

Economics and management seem totally irrelevant to the rank- and-file citizen. Most people do not feel they manage anything at all and as a result think they have no need to acquire such skills or even to take any interest in this topic.

The truth is that we are all managers in some way. Taking care of a household is based on the same principle as supervising the economy of an entire country, but of course it is on a much smaller scale. Parents are in charge of regulating their home's income and expenses in a more profound way than economic experts whose only interest is dry numbers.

Life is just like economics: There are greater experts and lesser ones; those who succeed more and those who succeed less. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that reality requires in all areas, that one be well-acquainted with the project he or she is handling. Everyone should at least learn the basic economic principles that enable him to balance his budget.

This article was written at the request of a gemach manager. He claims that many couples, especially newlyweds, find themselves facing daily life without knowing how to make ends meet. Simple matters such as expenses versus income, standards of living appropriate to one's financial assets, short and long term planning -- are all unknown concepts to them. Of course this situation is not due to a lack of intelligence but rather because of a lack of parental responsibility. They have been spoiled and accustomed to other people correcting their mistakes and smoothing out their failures.

When a person starts a business or prepares to supervise his home's finances he must first check what capital is at his disposal: How much is needed for developing the budding business and how much is needed to keep it going.

"Some couples, perhaps because of sheer naivete, start off their life on a foolhardy buying binge, without any consideration whether what they are buying is worthwhile or way above their means, without any plan or guidelines. In their early married years they already encounter overwhelming financial difficulties," says this gemach manager.

"When a young man comes to me with an application for a loan, he usually does not inform me of the scope of his other debts," the gemach manager told me. "A tiny notch of one specific loan is, however, enough for me to understand how that person conducts his life. Since gemach managers now consult with each other about problematic cases, we know exactly how the applicant gets along in life. What we see is not faulty management -- but a total lack of management. It is as if there is no connection between what you have and what you spend. It is as if the only possible expense in writing a check is the pen's ink to write down the deferred dates and figures. That also is often unnecessary since the debtor sometimes even borrows the gemach manager's pen!

"In many cases parental help covers their young children's debts, but there are instances in which the parents themselves are over their heads in debt. At this point the real tragedies occur. The young couple have nowhere to turn. Individuals are not overjoyed, to say the least, to lend them money because of the reasonable fear that their money will never be returned. The only address left for them is the gemach. These free loan services are, however, filled to the brim with applications from people marrying off their children, and are not really geared to helping a young man not yet dry behind the ears and already deep in dept.

"When such cases come to me I stop being a gemach manager and turn into a financial advisor and sometimes even a family counselor. I am careful not to bawl out the young man despite the urge to do so. I just simply sit with him for half an hour, figure out with him his income from the kollel, his wife's income, and even parental financial support. The next step is to sum up his monthly expenses such as electricity, water, telephone, taxes, transportation costs, trips, food, and clothing. I show him the sum that he is more or less able to spend freely. Together with him I try to find ways to limit his expenses: What he should under no circumstance buy (a car for instance, even a used one, since although the initial cost may be low the upkeep is sky high). It is necessary to point out to him where the pitfalls are (e.g., credit cards) and how he can increase his income. When the young man succeeds in holding the steering wheel correctly, I start encouraging him to save, to put something aside for a rainy day when he will desperately need some money.

"Some who initially get entangled in debts come to their senses and start running their home correctly. There are those, Hashem yeracheim, who sink even deeper into debt. This can be because of their inability to emerge from the whirlpool into which they were sucked. In more severe cases they had been helped out of their calamity by their parents and friends, but later plunged even deeper into financial debt. The problem then becomes tragic.

"My advice is that each boy and girl before marriage should not only receive guidance on how to conduct themselves in married life but how to prudently manage a household. They should be shown the facts, the obstacles, and the difficulties, and someone should calculate with them how much they will earn and how much they can spend. We should encourage them to live according to their means and even to save. It is necessary to tell them a little about ourselves, how we dealt with our lack of finances in the beginning of our married life so that they will not be alarmed. (One gemach manager claimed that it is permitted to tell stories about others if our particular past experience is nothing to brag about). We must open their eyes to see clearly the obstacles waiting for them through life."

In a case where a young couple becomes financially involved, the gemach manager suggests to his parents that they help them, but this help should not be done easily or without any conditions. Sometimes it is permitted to offer them long term loans of a relatively large sum in order to end the large deficit disturbing their lives and causing immense tension. The loan should be specified as being a "Program for Logical Management." This must be done gently and with tact so as neither to confuse the couple nor to show one to the other as irresponsible or as a spendthrift. Perhaps it is preferable that these discussions be done separately with the husband and wife so as not to raise doubts that have not yet been aired.

On the other hand, the gemach manager warns that parents, even those who have the financial means, should not be too freehanded and should not hurry to cover their children's debts without any supervision. "In the end they will have to confront this problem again. If the children do not tangibly feel the taste of difficulty, the pressure, and even the fear involved in being financially entangled, they will never know how to be careful."

In conclusion, he related to us a joke that a gemach manager once told him: "One person used to come regularly to my gemach accompanied by his young son. When I asked him why he always brings his child along, he was surprised that I should ask such a question: "There is an explicit halocho that a person must always teach his son a profession."

What is there to say about such a person? Decide for yourself if to laugh or cry.

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