Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Preparing Our Children to Roll with the Punches – Financial and Otherwise
Financial tension is a leading cause – perhaps the leading cause – of marital discord, as reflected by the Gemara’s statement (Temurah16a) that when there is no food in the house, the woman immediately starts to scream. While few young couples divorce over money, per se, financial tension has the potential to create or magnify many other problems, and these tensions only intensify as families grow and financial burdens mount. Consequently, couples who fail to develop sound financial habits – such as tracking expenses, sticking to a budget, saving, etc. – early on in marriage are exposing themselves to potential disaster. The upshot is that by equipping our children to live financially stable lives, we can also prepare them for success in their marriages.
Before our children marry, we try very hard to shield them from financial pressures and other harsh realities of life. This approach has merit, for it gives our children the opportunity to grow and learn without being weighed down by adult burdens. But there has to be a point when we introduce our teenage and adult children to the financial realities they will inevitably have to face. Unfortunately, few of our kids are being introduced to these realities ahead of time, and they often remain blissfully ignorant of how to manage their finances until the bills start smacking them in the face.
The Value of Struggle
Klal Yisrael is enjoying a period of abundance and tranquility unprecedented in this galus. Yet we are still in galus, and so our struggles – spiritual and material, collective and individual – persist, albeit on different battlefields than before. At the same time, however, the relatively favorable conditions in which we find ourselves lull us into thinking that we are not supposed to be struggling, and that ease and comfort are realistic expectations. People who enter marriage with that perception are positioned for grave disappointment.
Life is all about struggles, as the Mesilas Yesharim teaches, (ch. 1), “All matters of this world, whether good or bad, are nisyonos (challenges) for a person.” Almost inevitably, one area of such struggle is the gap between a person’s lifestyle expectations and the ultimate realities. Chazal famously teach that no person leaves this world having acquired even half of what he desired (Koheles Rabbah 3:13).
A person who is averse to struggle – who expects everything to go exactly his way and who can’t cope when life throws him a curveball – is a person doomed to misery. Life isn’t supposed to confer on us a prescribed set of optimum conditions – rather, our job is to make the best of the circumstances we are given.
The Mesila organization was founded upon the credo that people can manage financially, if they correctly utilize their God-given assortments of gifts: talents, money, connections, ambitions, etc. This concept, reiterated three times a day in Ashrei (“Poseiach es yadecha…”), is the basis of all of Mesila’s activities, which include counseling programs for families and businesses as well as a variety of educational programs for adults and students.
In Mesila’s Seminary Program, which is now being taught to young women in Israel, the United States, Canada, and England, we attempt to convey this credo by means of a game called Paper Bag Dramatics. Participants in this simple game are grouped together, and each group receives a bag containing a random assortment of items. One group’s bag might contain a ball, a jacket, a newspaper, a shovel, and an apple, while another group’s bag might contain a pillow, a fork, a tile, a telephone, and a pot lid. Each group then has to put on a skit using the items they are given.
Students learn that each person is handed a “paper bag” of tools and circumstances when he enters this world, whose contents are adjusted every Rosh Hashanah. We don’t choose the items we receive, but we can choose whether to wring our hands in despair when we discover what’s in our bag, or to accept the challenge of succeeding with what we have.
This attitude of accepting and working with what is, rather than mourning what isn’t, is absolutely crucial for building a happy marriage. Every couple enters marriage with their own preconceived notions, fantasies and expectations. The couples who thrive through shanah rishonah (their first year) and beyond are typically those who learn to shelve their preconceived expectations and to adjust to the unique “paper bag” that is their marriage – their spouse, their in-laws, their finances.
The inability to adjust to the gap between fantasy and reality is a recipe for unhappiness in marriage, and may be responsible for many an early divorce. Later down the line, when a couple’s expenses and financial pressures mount, the same inability to adjust to financial realities can cause serious marital discord or even divorce, r”l. Those who can roll with the punches, who understand that olam hazeh (this world) is essentially a series of nisyonos, and who can recognize the growth opportunities inherent in any struggle, are the ones who are equipped to successfully navigate their challenges – marital, financial, or otherwise.
If the ability to cope with adversity rather than wallow in it is crucial for success in marriage and in life, what can we do to prepare our young people for the challenges they will inevitably face? I believe that the responsibility for this preparation must be shared by the home and the school.
The Parents’ Role: The Gift of “No,” The Art of “Yes”
Preparation for marriage cannot begin the day a young man or woman gets engaged – it has to begin during early childhood. Parents should strive to ensure that their children are not soft, and do not fall apart in the face of disappointment, stress, or adversity. In order to do this, we have to familiarize our children with the concept of struggle, rather than shield them from all pain and disappointment. As hard as we may try to shield our children from disappointment, life has a way of strewing their paths with obstacles, and sometimes even heartbreak. In fact, the harder we try to shield our kids from disappointment, the less opportunity they have to develop coping mechanisms, which leaves them even more vulnerable to the hard knocks of life.
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Greenwald is a renowned psychologist who conducted an extensive correspondence with the Steipler Gaon, zt”l. In a conversation I once had with Dr. Greenwald, he repeated a question he had posed to the Steipler: Why are so many people suffering from depression nowadays, considering how much better their lives are than they used to be? (And this was several decades ago!)
The Steipler responded that in earlier times, people lived with much less, and were accustomed to suffering. They didn’t expect to have everything they wanted, so they were content with whatever they had. Nowadays, when people have more, and expect to have more, they become depressed when things don’t go their way.
“If so,” Dr. Greenwald asked the Steipler, “how should we raise happy children? Should we deprive them in order not to accustom them to getting whatever they want?”
“No,” replied the Steipler, “one shouldn’t deprive one’s children. But people should teach their children the middah of histapkus (contentment) by not giving them everything they want.”
In keeping with this line of thinking, Mesila has promoted the following budgeting maxim: “Everything you need, and some of what you want.” In other words, parents should ensure that they and their children have all their basic needs met and that they have some extras as well, so that they don’t feel suffocated. But children should not have everything they want, even if their parents can afford it.
Each person must assess his own family’s needs and wants, since these are highly individual and subject to one’s society – a luxury for one person might be a necessity for someone else. But it’s crucial to draw the line somewhere. Whether a parent is a pauper or a Rockefeller, he has to be able to say no – both to himself and to his children. The ability to prioritize needs and wants, and create a budget that reflects those priorities, is one that can be taught to children from a very young age – if the parents themselves have their priorities clear.
On occasion, it’s fine to give children something “just because” – but not all the time. By not satisfying a child’s every whim, by giving him the gift of a well-placed “no,” parents inoculate the child against the bigger disappointments of life. A child who does not learn that he cannot expect everything to go his way will have to learn the lesson far more painfully when he doesn’t get into the yeshiva he wants or he is turned down by the girl he wants to marry.
Parents, of course, should not deliberately make life difficult for their children. Parents naturally want to give their kids the best of everything, and by giving to our kids unconditionally we cultivate trust, security, and love. Part of giving our kids the best of everything, however, is giving them the gift of “no,” and teaching them how to cope when things don’t go their way.
Equally important is learning the art of how to say “yes.” A leading chinuch expert in Eretz Yisrael relates that when his children would ask him for something, he would pause and think for a moment before answering. Even if he had every intention of acceding to the child’s request, that brief pause conveyed to the child that the yes was neither automatic nor an entitlement.
No matter how small a child’s request, it doesn’t hurt to pause before saying yes. If a child makes a major request, parents would do well to think about it for a day or two before coming back to the child with their response. The lapse between the request and the yes makes the child realize that the possibility of “no” is real. And when a yes is forthcoming, the child will be all the more grateful.
Entitlement and gratitude are inversely proportional – the more a person feels he deserves, the less thankful he will be when he gets it. And the less entitled your child feels, the better a marriage partner he or she will make.
It comes as a big shocker to many young couples that they have to curtail their standard of living significantly after moving out of their parents’ homes – whether they are in kollel, in college, or working. The girl who used to send all her clothing to the dry cleaner and the boy who bought takeout food every night might suddenly discover that the cost of rent and electric bills preclude those and many other indulgences. If, however, they have learned to adjust to less-than-ideal circumstances, they will be well prepared for the lifestyle changes that invariably set in soon after sheva berachos.
On the subject of entitlement, I should add that parents who are supporting their married children should do so with no strings attached, and without intending to buy a stake in their children’s decisions. The more independent a married couple can be, the sooner they will learn to make mature, responsible decisions, and the fewer obstacles they will have in their quest for shalom bayis.
The School’s Role: Finances as a Microcosm
The school’s role in preparing our children for life’s challenges is primarily technical – namely, to impart the basic skills, habits, and hashkafos required to successfully navigate life’s ups and downs. In the financial realm in particular, being prepared and armed with an arsenal of tools can make the difference between a life of financial stability and a life of financial mayhem and dependency.
The financial skills and habits that schools should teach include – but are not limited to – prioritizing, defining one’s unique needs and wants, building a budget, sticking to a budget, saving, cash flow planning, avoiding debt, using credit cards judiciously, becoming a wise consumer, and taking a proactive stance toward earning income, as well as toward all other aspects of financial management.
The necessary hashkafos include finding the balance between bitachon and hishtadlus, internalizing the value of financial independence (לא לידי מתנת בשר ודם ולא לידי הלואתם); understanding what true happiness is, maintaining integrity in all situations, keeping one’s lifestyle in line with one’s spiritual aspirations, and staying financially and spiritually afloat in a sea of consumerism.
These skills, habits, and hashkafos form the basis of Mesila’s high school and seminary curriculum materials, which are designed for inclusion in economics, life skills, and/or Bayis HaYehudi courses. The concepts are simple, but are literally life-changing – and even lifesaving – for those who learn them in time. It is far more difficult to teach these concepts to people who come to Mesila for help later, when they are already mired in debt or drowning in expenses. Sadly, by that time, their marriage is often on the rocks – or worse.
Many will argue that our Zeides and Bubbes managed just fine without any financial preparation. And they are undoubtedly correct. But our Zeides and Bubbes did not have access to credit cards, internet shopping, or the bewildering array of offerings that exist in our global marketplace. Today’s battles have to be fought with an up-to-date arsenal of weapons, and – in order to combat the scourge of divorce – financial education must occupy a prominent place in that arsenal. This is especially true in light of the alarming trends of young people amassing debt even before they get married and young couples falling into credit card debt shortly after their wedding.
The fundamental tenet of financial education is that a person’s spending limit is determined by his or her income. Simple as this principle seems, young people today are shockingly oblivious to it; their spending decisions are based more on what their friends and neighbors have than on what they can actually afford.
The beauty of financial education is that the same principles that help young people achieve financial stability can also help them succeed in other areas of life. When we teach kids how to budget, for instance, we give them decision-making skills that can be applied to all areas of their lives, from shidduchim to menu planning. Taught in a financial context, these skills are real rather than abstract, yet they are impersonal enough to be safe, non-threatening, and suitable for all audiences.
Mesila was initially concerned that students might find financial education dry and boring but, to their surprise, high school and seminary girls lapped up the material. The girls’ enthusiasm about the lessons evidenced secret concerns about their ability to cope with life, both financially and emotionally. Mesilah is in the process of launching a similar program for yeshiva students, but this is proving to be a far more complex endeavor.
In view of the considerable spiritual and financial struggles of our generation, building a happy, Torah-true home nowadays is a monumental undertaking. Can we afford not to give our children the tools to succeed?