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I grew up poor; now I’m not. How do I teach my kids about money?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

I grew up poor, and in a household where what we could afford was actually based on hard limits around cash flow. My wife and I now earn more money than we could reasonably spend on our family, and so decisions about what to buy are more value-driven, as in: would this be an item we actually use, or is this purchase wasteful or necessary?

Obviously, that financial security is a blessing, but I want my children — three of them, under the age of 10 — to grow up with an understanding that money doesn’t come from some limitless fountain, and that many people can’t buy things solely based on how much they want them. I also struggle with how to say no when they ask for new things, because my reasoning isn’t “we can’t afford this” but “we decided that purchase isn’t worth it.” Any Jewish wisdom that seems relevant?

So What If I’m a Rich Man

Dear Rich Man,

This is a question where I would love to hear thoughts from our readers, especially those who are parents. I’m sure there is a lot of collective wisdom in the Bintel community on this topic!

But since you came to me, here are a few concrete suggestions, rooted in some of my favorite Jewish texts about money and values: (1) Include your children, as they get older, in family decisions around giving charity and how to spend money; (2) avoid sounding envious or overly admiring of wealth; and (3) make sure your kids regularly hang out with people who aren’t wealthy.

This is why I gravitate towards these three suggestions:

(1) Wealthy parents, unlike families with less money, tend to avoid money talk with their children all together. Go to any college campus and ask kids what their parents earn, and you’ll likely find that the students who have no idea are from richer families.

This is largely because, while parents all over often want to shield their children from money talk and don’t want their children to be worried about money, it’s families with less money that, by necessity, need to have this conversation earlier. If you don’t want your kids to grow up unaware of the financial realities of the world, then you need to be much more proactive about including them in the kinds of decisions you make around spending money.

Talk about how much you are giving to charity, and why that amount. Include them in conversations about how much to spend on a family vacation, or their education, or gifts. This might be uncomfortable, especially if you don’t love how your own values around money get expressed, but it’s the strongest way to actually pass on financial values in decision making to your children. Money becomes less abstract.

This also inculcates the practice of giving charity in your children, by putting it on their radar and in their bones. Maimonides, famed Jewish scholar and legal authority of the 12th century, was once asked “If I have a thousand golden coins, would it be better to give them all to one poor man, or give one coin to one thousand poor men?” Maimonides answered that the man should give the one thousand coins to one thousand different people, so that he would “teach his hand to give.”

In other words, charity is a learned habit, and not intuitive. (Of course, the recipient of the single gold coin might be more helped by a larger portion, but Jewish sources on charity are almost always from the perspective of the giver rather than the recipient —a topic for another time). You have to teach your kids to be charitable, like you teach them to brush their teeth and look both ways when crossing a street. One way to do that is have them be part of the process from a young age.

(2) Don’t make money an idol in your home. The Talmud, in Bava Batra 10a, embarks on a wide ranging discussion about the value of charity and the theological place of poverty in the world. At one point, one rabbi remarks, “whoever turns his eyes away from one who seeks charity is like one who worshipped idols.” In the world of the Talmud, God gives us money while also instructing us on how to spend that money (on charity!), and so one who refuses to give charity worships money over God.

Wealthy people can be a huge blessing to Jewish communities, and their contributions deserve to be recognized. Wealth was never something that Judaism dismissed as the root of evil; often, it’s the root of tremendous good.

But some families lavish their envy on signifiers of wealth, saying things like: “Oh wow, did you see the size of their house?” or “That Bat Mitzvah must have cost a fortune! It was so beautiful.”

All of those are fine sentiments, but it hits differently when you express admiration for traits you want your kids to envy. Such as: “Oh wow, I love how much time that family spends together!” or “Did you hear about the incredible volunteer work Susan does with the library?” What you praise can send a message about how you view wealth: Nice, but not the only path to joy and communal respect.

(3) Many wealthy kids grow up not knowing anybody who isn’t wealthy, except for people who work for them. This is because kids tend to hang out with kids in their synagogue, schools, camps, and other places where money can be a self-selective factor in attendance.

The Talmud, this time in Brachot 28a, tells another story, about Rabban Gamliel, who went to visit R. Yehoshua. Rabban Gamliel was the head of the Jewish community at the time, and a wealthy man from a prestigious Jewish family. When he reached R. Yehoshua’s home, he was surprised to see the walls were black, and that R. Yehoshua earned his keep in the unglamourous trade of charcoal-burning. Seeing his surprise, R. Yehoshua exclaimed, “woe to the generation for whom you are the leader, because you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, and how they struggle to support and sustain themselves.”

You don’t want your kids to be like Rabban Gamliel (at least not in this regard!). As someone who grew up poor, you know that money is important, but you also know that not having a lot of money doesn’t mean your life was this pitiful, sad, scary existence. Kids who grow up rich tend to encounter discussions around wealth in the context of being told they are lucky, which of course implies that all poor people are drastically unlucky. That can make it hard for wealthier children to discuss money with peers who have less, because the subject is so taboo.

One way I’ve seen this taboo manifest is that kids who grow up in communities where having less money is common are often comfortable with conversations around whether or not something is affordable; saying that an outing is too expensive is a socially fine thing to say. But for kids where everyone’s family was rich, and money almost never discussed in a concrete, day-to-day way, saying something is too expensive can be uncomfortable. In this same vein, wealthy children might feel unsure about how to offer to lend money to a friend they suspect is struggling, simply because they feel that bringing up money at all is embarrassing or impolite. You don’t want your kids to think being poor is shameful.

I don’t know how you relate to this part of your upbringing. There is often a lot of shame in being poor, especially in a country that values money as much as America. But one thing to be conscious of might be who your kids are hanging out with, and whether they have friends who aren’t as rich as your family.

As your kids get older, they are going to want to mimic their peers. You don’t want to be too hard on them — just because your daughter wants the expensive sneakers that all her friends are wearing doesn’t mean she has become a spoiled brat. Your kids needs and financial desires will be different than yours as a kid, but they are motivated by the same basic desire to fit in that every kid has. So don’t be too worried or judgemental of your kids.

And when it comes to how, and when, to say no — one of the first things that comes to mind is bal tashchit, the Jewish principle of not being wasteful or destroying something for no reason. Not being wasteful is its own Jewish value, regardless of whether your family would feel the consequences of that waste. There is value in saying no to an unnecessary purchase, even if you can afford it, because you are honoring the effort and work that goes into creating the things that make up our lives. So continue to let that be your guiding standard.

Thanks for such a wonderful question. I know there is so much more to say.

Readers, please weigh in!

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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