By: Robert Sussman
As the value of the Rand spirals downward, while inflation and the cost of living spike upward, families are struggling to keep their heads above water, as debt, and along with it stress, begins to mount. Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked hard – six days a week and sometimes even seven – without any break. Many were forced to start working from very tender ages out of sheer necessity. Annual holiday vacations to exotic locales? Unheard of – it wasn’t even on their radar. Such a thing was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that took nearly a lifetime to save up for. Are we seeing the return to a time when people work long hours, weekends, and multiple jobs just to make ends meet – with no end in sight? We sat down with a couple of families, who have spent years struggling, to hear some first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live like this day-in and day-out.
As a family with more than five children, we’ve been taking serious financial strain for the past five years, when what looked like a new and exciting business opportunity for me turned into an absolute disaster. At one point, for several months, we were starting to see the light, but due to the rising costs of school fees, food, petrol, and medical aid, coupled with the fact that we have not been able to earn more, we slipped back into debt again. Although for a while we were able at least to manage our debt, the last few months have seen things turn for the worse again. We really don’t want to borrow more money because it just makes the hole that we are in that much deeper. The gemachs are happy to lend the money, but besides the hassle of having to organise the sureties for the loan, there is so much pain and embarrassment in just having to ask for it, but the alternative is being stuck with the stress of debit orders bouncing for essential things like medical aid. As we finish paying off one loan, we start another. It’s only a matter of time before we are going to be using one gemach to pay the other.
By the time we finish paying school fees, utilities, insurance, and medical aid each month, we are left with very little for anything else other than food. Even though my wife and I, both university graduates in our 40s, earn a combined net monthly income of approximately R75 000, we can be short as much as R15 000 to R30 000 in any given month! To help us get by, we receive financial help in various forms, some of it is anonymous, and some of it from our shul. Unforeseen expenses, like car repairs, can cause a major setback for us. We recently made a simcha and, although our children didn’t put any pressure on us, they did have certain expectations. We, too, felt the need to maintain a certain standard regarding the simcha, so we had to borrow money to pay for it. In the first quarter of this year, we took out another loan in order to pay: some taxes that were due, service my car, clear an overdraft that was racking up interest payments, and help with some other debts. However, due to the fact that my industry has some slow months during the year, we wound up having to resort to using the overdraft again.
How do we cope? We take things day-by-day. There is a daily panic-attack-level stress of seeing what payments have gone through and watching the money come off of the balance in our account. My wife and I are so busy working long hours every day that we rarely get to chat, except over dinner. Shabbos thankfully serves as a reprieve from the non-stop madness, and it’s a time when we can both catch up on some much needed sleep. The end of each month brings with it the question of how will we survive the next month? Sell the cars or the house? Emigrate? Harvest our kidneys? Rob a bank? Like most people, our school fees are significantly subsidised, but we are proud to say that we pay R20 000 per month, roughly half of the full amount. We had to downgrade our medical aid and start living very frugally. We also had to replace one of our cars because it was costing too much in repairs, maintenance, and petrol, while essential maintenance on our other car is long overdue.
We used to do a monthly shopping and Shabbos shopping. Now we do a “there’s no food in the house” shopping and Shabbos shopping. We have single course meals for Shabbos lunch, rather than the usual three to five courses. I think we need to consider what some of our friends are doing: shopping at one of the local bakeries after 3 on a Friday, when everything has been reduced to half off. We never dine out; extra murals are limited and we find other sources of income to pay for them; the kids will, on occasion, go to camp which takes us the whole year to pay off; and family holidays are once a year, likely a timeshare given to us by a family member. We have switched to pre-paid cell plans, we do our best to save electricity, and we shop on-line. I am trying to upskill myself, however, courses are expensive and time is limited when you are trying to work extra to make ends meet. We have also started looking at alternative income streams and different types of businesses.
Unfortunately, when you are living from hand-to-mouth, everything is a strain, which has definitely taken its toll on the family and that’s what hurts the most. We live in a reality where we have to think twice before spending money and that kind of stress makes us moody at times, which our children can pick up on, despite the fact that we don’t discuss our financial issues with them. The children ask why I “never take a holiday” or how come so-and-so’s parents can buy this-and-that for their kids. They see us working very hard and have gotten used to hearing “no” for most things they ask for.
Often we feel alone, as it seems as though everyone else is managing. There are many families where only one parent works and, yet, the family seems to lack nothing: holidays, overseas trips, fancy clothing, and eating out don’t seem to be an issue for them. On the other hand, I know of other families who are in our boat or in an even worse situation. Many just put on a brave face. It’s not something that we – or others we know – like to discuss openly. The hardest part of all is the impact it has on your self-esteem. Sadly, I think Johannesburg is turning into a tale of two cities. On the one hand, you see people that are very comfortable: buying coffee out every morning, eating lunches out every day, spending January planning their December holiday, and taking the whole family away for Pesach. Their biggest challenge seems to be their travel arrangements. On the other hand, you see the queues outside the chesed organisations just getting longer and longer.
I was listening to the Radio the other day and they were talking about a concept called a “black tax.” What’s a “black tax”? It’s a “tax” in black communities where a member of a family either stays with or gets support from another family member, until he can support himself. Needless to say, I thought the principal behind the idea was quite amazing, especially since the Torah speaks about supporting one’s brother who is in need until that person is self-sufficient again. It would even be a good idea for businesses to adopt a business that is in trouble.
My wife and I, who are both in our 40s, started feeling strain about ten years ago, particularly in the cost of food and especially as our family started growing. Although we both hold university degrees, we admittedly lacked discipline in our spending. A few years ago, I lost my job with a large financial institution due to factors beyond my control. Since then I have been looking for full-time employment without success and have had to rely on project-based work. The strain has only increased as temporary and contract work have become more and more difficult to find. As a white male, it is very difficult to find work in this country and I have been refused up front on many occasions simply because of this fact. I have tried starting a number of business initiatives, but unfortunately without much success. My wife has found small jobs to do over time, but nothing significant.
As a result, our monthly income is entirely variable and our shortfall is often very large, sometimes over R60 000 per month. We no longer have any savings. We have been extremely fortunate to have been supported by generous family members with loans. However, at the same time, the regular and constant accumulation of debt is one of the worst stresses that we have, as we desperately want and expect to pay these loans back once we find stable, steady incomes, but the longer that debt is allowed to accumulate, the more difficult it will obviously be to pay back. We also carry significant debt from credit cards, which we no longer use, and have to use borrowed money to keep up with repayments.
How do we cope? Honestly? With great difficulty. Our biggest monthly expenses are the bond on our house, medical aid along with medical expenses that are not covered by that aid, schools fees, insurance, and food. At the moment we pay only a small portion of our R23 000 monthly school fees and are running up debt in that regard as well. Given the uncertainty of our income, it has been difficult to make any formal fee arrangements with the schools. Our medical aid is covered by the assistance we get from family. Our standard of living has dropped significantly. We hardly buy new clothes, perhaps a handful of items over the last few years. We have had to say “no” to our older children going to camp, something that they previously did.
We have not been on a proper family holiday for almost five years, although we have managed some small getaways for a few days given to us by friends. We downgraded medical aid plans, but, in recent years, circumstances required us to upgrade again. We have cut back significantly on food, eating out, and children’s after-school activities. We have simplified our eating considerably, regularly eating things like soup and cheaper alternatives such as pasta. My wife has sought out cheaper shops for kosher products, as well as for fruit and vegetable shopping. We check prices much more when we are shopping than we ever used to. We have also shopped around for cheaper insurance. We have tried to cut out unnecessary bank and other accounts that are infrequently used. I have changed my cell phone to pre-paid and scrapped services that are not essential and which we can do ourselves, such as some of the domestic work.
Although we obviously have great friend and family support, when it comes to our inability to find employment, we feel largely alone. When we sit down and look at our monthly expenses, which are not extravagant, we cannot understand how families can survive considering just how much income is needed to cover basics such as housing, school, medical aid, and food. There are times when it has been very stressful, but we have not let it negatively affect our relationship, supporting each other the best we can. We accept our situation, although we admittedly find it very difficult and even embarrassing. It has certainly given us a better appreciation of what we do have though. Our children are aware of some of the strain, especially the older ones in whom we have confided more about what has been going on, as, in recent years, they have had to give up on certain things and have been unable to get much, and have had to stop many extra murals. One of our younger children is often asking me if I have found a job yet, so it is obviously on their minds.
Building a lifeline
With stories like these becoming far too common in our community, a grassroots group consisting of actuaries, business leaders, and communal leaders, spearheaded by Paul Bacher, has been assembled with a focus on making a significant dent in ever-increasing monthly expenses and improving the community’s financial stability. At present, the group is trying to determine just how widespread the crunch is being felt, collecting and analysing detailed data, as well as brainstorming ways of making tangible improvements to the financial situation of the community. They need your help. Please visit www.affordablejewishlife.co.za and complete a short, anonymous survey to help build a picture of the finances of the community. Alternatively, if you are someone with expertise or have an idea that could add value to this group, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Names have been changed
- Full disclosure: The author is a member of this group ↑