A popular topic of discussion in newspapers, magazines and talk shows revolves around the management of personal finances – or rather the lack of them. In most cases, dealing with overwhelming debt is the topic de jour. Seems many people are drowning in it. Spending more than they have has mired countless consumers into a financial quicksand with maxed out credit cards and collection agencies knocking on the door. Speaking of doors, many face eviction and the loss of their home.
Often tens of thousands of dollars are owed.
How do seemingly intelligent, educated men and women allow themselves to accumulate so much debt? Why didn’t they push the “stop” button when they saw they were getting in over their heads?
In most cases, the answer is simple and obvious: they wanted it all – now!
Nowadays it seems the cultural norm is immediate gratification with no regard for future consequences. A lack of self-discipline or self-control is rampant among young and old alike.
If there is something you want, you just get it – regardless if you can afford it.
But how did this “must have it now no matter what” mentality come to be? I believe this chronic self-indulgent behavior is fuelled by two factors – an absence of boundaries and low self-esteem.
Most people don’t have what I call a personal “border control.” They have no boundaries. There are fewer and fewer “nos” in their life. Restrictions and limits that were the norm just a generation or two ago are viewed as old-fashioned and seem to have become obsolete.
Behavioral “fences” have been removed, and I believe one of the reasons for this is the secularization of society. Religious practice for many, both in the Christian and Jewish worlds, has gone the way of the buggy whip.
I remember a time when few stores were allowed to be open on Sunday – a situation that caused a great deal of financial hardship for shomer Shabbat businesses that had to remain closed the entire weekend.
Today, however, North America is buying and selling 365 days a year.
The beauty of religion, especially Orthodox Judaism with its myriad rules, prohibitions and regulations, is that it promotes self-discipline. From a young age, children raised in religious homes are taught they can do some things sometimes, but not everything every time. Immediate gratification is not on the agenda in religious homes. Children (hopefully) learn patience, self-discipline and self-control because they must. And eventually, it becomes second nature to wait for what they want. That ice-cream cone they are salivating over is not an option for several hours after eating that chicken nugget.
The ingrained habit of holding off from getting what they want immediately can only serve to maximize their ability to avoid self-destructive behaviors like gambling, drinking or overspending.
Torah-observant Jews are still human and subject to human weaknesses and frailties, and some – despite being raised in homes with Torah “borders” – still indulge in unfortunate destructive behaviors and activities. But living a Torah life with its promotion and insistence of self-discipline will greatly improve one’s odds of resisting temptation.
Sadly, there are Jews who do not believe in a Divinely-given Torah and reject its rules and regulations. Yet by virtue of the borders that a Torah life provides and the resultant ingrained self–control and restraint, they should reconsider their attitude and embrace Torah for the magnificent blueprint of life that it is.
With religious observance becoming passé, the general population is growing up with no restrictions, no limits and no boundaries to guide their impulses. There are no “can’t,” “not allowed,” or “it’s forbidden” in their lives. Hence many have not had the opportunity to develop such life-enhancing attributes as patience and restraint.
I also believe that financial recklessness is caused by low self-esteem and a poor self-image. Human nature is such that no one wants to feel “left out” or inferior. No one wants to think they are a “loser” and that they don’t measure up to their peers. Everyone likes to see himself or herself as being a winner.
How else do you explain sports fans? Often their lives revolve around the game and the outcome of each one can affect the mood of a city, even a country. If your team wins, you walk around elated and feeling superior. If it loses that big game… you’d think there was a death in the family.
Why is that? Why should Joe Average be so emotionally invested in how his team does? It is because being associated with a “winner” makes a person feel good about him/herself. For someone with poor self-esteem, his or her sense of inadequacy is replaced with a sense of superiority, if only for a short time – until the next game or season.
Likewise, people equate possessions with being a success. The bigger, the newer and the pricier the item, the more the consumer feels on a higher madreigah than the “have-nots.” Shopping makes people who have a poor self-image feel better about themselves. Marketers know this and build on people’s insecurities. If you buy their product, you will either get the girl/guy; the job/promotion; your life will become exciting, etc. In other words, you become a “somebody” by dressing according to the latest fashion or by acquiring the most updated gadgets.
However, this sense of “coolness” is fleeting because almost overnight there is a new and improved version of whatever it is you bought – and all you have to show for it is crippling debt.
People who have a healthy sense of self don’t need to artificially make themselves feel good. They don’t have to buy and accumulate “stuff” to know their true worth. They don’t need to be snobs, or ingratiate themselves with people they perceive as being superior because they are wealthy, popular or have “yichus.”
How do you recognize someone who has positive self-esteem? They are the ones who are modest and unassuming, who do not chase kavod – despite achievements they justifiably could brag about. Their modesty is a reflection of true yirat Shamayim because they know that all they have is a gift from Hashem and not because they are so special or better.
Those who live genuine Torah lives know that the authentic and long-lasting way to feeling good about themselves is by giving, not by getting. Ask yourself this question: Who feels more positive about herself – someone who sent a meal over to a family whose mother is in the hospital, or the person who bought designer shoes with an inflated price tag, shoes that will be “yesterday’s news” around the time the credit card bill arrives in the mail?
Reining in our impulse to spend money we don’t have and harnessing our Torah inspired mandate to set limits and boundaries will help lead to a healthy bank account – and a good night’s sleep.
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