As soon as my husband and I announced our engagement, we immediately became the beneficiaries of a truckload of advice on all things wedding-related. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on where I should look for a wedding gown, who was the most-talked-about florist, and how I should have my hair styled.
Despite my thriftiness — I rented my wedding gown at a gemach (communal co-op), we got our dining room breakfront off of Craigslist, and my little brother won us four wooden chairs in a raffle to complement the dining room table my in-laws graciously loaned us — a constant chorus of “buy, buy, buy” streamed in the background. I began to wonder whether I really needed the $350 brocade linen, the $2,000 sheitel, and the $500 professional pots and pans. Wouldn’t the $100 set of pots suffice? (Several Shabbat meals later, I can honestly vouch that they do!)
But it was the $300 negligee in a Brooklyn store that stopped me in my tracks. “It’s an Italian designer,” the saleslady told me, surprised by the shocked look on my face. Clearly, she had customers willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a slip of fabric.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jewish newlyweds have little idea how to manage their finances. Few pre-marital classes or officiating rabbis offer anything in the way of financial advice. And cultural norms encourage young Jewish brides and grooms to register to their heart’s delight — no need to peek at the price tags.
But as the economy remains at a standstill and the costs of leading a Jewish lifestyle (including day school tuition and membership at a synagogue, temple, or JCC) continue to rise, it’s more important than ever for newlyweds to establish a firm financial foundation on which to build their life together. Often the financial decisions made early on in a marriage will forever impact a couple’s ability to afford to lead a lifestyle in line with their Jewish values. And research indicates that an ability to frankly discuss finances and money habits with one’s spouse is a key indicator of relationship satisfaction.
That’s one of the reasons why I launched Pazit (www.pazit.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Jewish women (and the men they love) to take control of their financial futures. Pazit, Hebrew for “pure gold,” offers financial education events for Jewish singles and young couples in their 20s and 30s in the tri-state area, as well as a Money Club, which provides a safe space for groups of a dozen or so Jewish women to talk about their challenges and insecurities when it comes to managing money.
It’s important to “get a sense of each other’s financial habits ahead of time,” preferably before marrying, says Bard Malovany, a financial adviser with Sagemark Consulting in Annandale, Va. This includes discussing student loans and significant credit card debt, as well as plans for paying it off. “If one spouse brings significant debt to the marriage, it can cause significant friction. And if you’re really thrifty and uncomfortable spending money, that can be as much of a burden on a relationship if you’re marrying someone who’s completely the opposite.”
Before deciding where to rent or buy a home, the engaged couple should establish a budget, also known as a spending plan. Calculate your after-tax monthly income and deduct expenses (rent, utilities, renter’s or home insurance, food, cell phones, Internet, cable TV, groceries, synagogue membership, gas and transportation, recreation, student loan payments, auto insurance, etc.)
Decide in advance how much tzedakah you’d like to give for the year as a couple, given your financial situation. Aim to invest at least 10 to 15 percent of your pre-tax income in a 401(k) (if your employer gives you that option) and/or a Roth IRA, and begin stashing away savings to create a rainy day fund equivalent to six months of living expenses. “Be sure to budget extra for debt reduction and for savings,” says Greg Womack, author of the book “Wisdom and Wealth” (Beacon Hill Press: 2007). “Make a commitment to always live within your means, spending less than you make.”
Couples should decide together how they’d like to divvy up financial roles like paying the bills and whether they want to use joint or separate checking and savings accounts. There’s no right and wrong. “Different things work for different people,” Malovany says. “If a couple is marrying very young and neither has much in the way of assets, starting out with joint accounts makes sense,” he says. The same applies to couples where one spouse isn’t working. “From a psychological perspective, there’s something nice about feeling like you’re in it together, and that includes money.” Other couples, especially those with two incomes, prefer to maintain separate accounts and divvy up the expenses according to their salaries.
Financial experts like syndicated “Money Talk” columnist Liz Pulliam Weston recommend that couples each have some private funds. “Even a few bucks a week to blow on lattes or a movie can be enough to preserve a necessary sense of independence,” she write in her book, “Easy Money” (FT Press: 2008). Another way to avoid disagreements is to agree with your spouse not to make purchases above a certain amount (say $200) without consulting one another.
Once married, schedule a monthly “money date” with your spouse. “Many couples know that talking about money is important, but either fail or put off talking about it because money can be an emotionally charged issue,” says Kristy Archuleta, Ph.D., who co-directs the Financial Therapy Clinic at Kansas State University.
Despite a couple’s best intentions, there will always be disagreements, says Malovany. “Marriage involves a lot of compromise. Money is just one of the things you learn how to compromise on.”
(Published in The Jewish Week, June 2009. Copyright Tamar Snyder)
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