It’s no secret that the cost of a frum lifestyle can be prohibitively expensive. Affording food, housing, and a yeshiva education are just a few of the major financial outlays that families face. I call the elevated prices for these areas to be “Jewish inflation” since the prices may be far greater than are typical for these products in other communities. For instance, strong demand for items such as kosher food and housing within walking distance to a shul cause prices to be elevated.
Many rabbis and other leaders have put forward suggestions on how to make an Orthodox lifestyle more affordable by addressing some of the systemic issues we all face. For example, to bring down the cost of yeshiva education, some leaders have suggested relying more on technology, volunteering of parents, and financial support from the local Jewish community. There are no easy answers or universally popular solutions.
While there is much to be discussed on these systemic issues, I will take a different approach. As a financial advisor, my focus is to suggest practical strategies that frum families can implement within their own finances to help alleviate financial stress. None of these strategies are easy, but they may all be effective when taken seriously. This week I will start with a discussion on minimizing discretionary expenses.
There are two different types of expenses: non-discretionary and discretionary. Non-discretionary expenses are mandatory. This includes utilities, rent, mortgage payments, taxes, and grocery bills to name just a few. Discretionary expenses, on the other hand, are not mandatory and can be avoided or minimized with proper planning.
One example is where we decide to get our food. Everybody needs to eat, but going out to eat is a luxury that shouldn’t be indulged if you are having a problem paying your housing costs or tuition payments. If you purchase prepared foods for Shabbos, the financial outlay is a multiple of what it would cost to prepare the same meal by cooking at home. The same can be said about eating out breakfast, lunch, and dinner instead of eating at home or “brown bagging” your lunch when you’re at work.
Another non-discretionary expense to minimize is your choice of automobile. Remember, the point of a car is to get a person from point A to point B. It is not to have the latest model of luxury vehicle or to impress your friends. A used car or leasing a basic model may be all that is necessary to address your transportation needs. Furthermore, it is rarely necessary for a family to have more than two cars. Granted, this may make coordinating car usage a requirement in a family with multiple adult children, but the financial outlay for another vehicle, the upkeep associated with it, and insurance is an unnecessary expense for most families.
Traveling for vacation is also a discretionary expense. While it’s important to take time off for mental health reasons, it’s not vital to travel to Miami for yeshiva break or to Israel for Pesach. The amount of money a family can save by having a staycation instead of traveling is significant.
A final illustration is related to housing. It’s interesting to note that the average house in America in the 1950s was just 983 square feet. By the 1980s it was 1,740 square feet. Today it’s approximately 2,700 square feet. A larger house means more upkeep costs and higher taxes. It also probably means you took out a larger mortgage to be able to purchase the home. While it’s important for a family to live comfortably, it’s also important to note that housing is one of the most significant costs in the budget of any family. Be honest with yourself about how much space you actually need and what you can afford. The ability to live in a house that is appropriate for your needs and income can make a huge difference in your monthly cash flow.
If you comb through your budget you will quickly see there are many discretionary items, similar to the ones I’ve mentioned, that can be eliminated. Do you pay for multiple video streaming services, a gym membership you never use, or magazine and online subscriptions you never read? Each one of these items may not seem like a lot. However, when you tally all these expenses together, on an annual basis you may be looking at many thousands of dollars a year in savings. These savings will help free up dollars to spend on the necessities like food and yeshiva tuition.
In subsequent articles, I will discuss additional strategies to increase one’s cash flow and make maintaining a Jewish lifestyle less financially burdensome.