Avoiding debt like the plague

More than 775,000 children in Israel are living in poverty, but rather than letting people blame the government, Mindy Ajzner and her Chaim BePlus organization are educating how debt management can be the way out of poverty.

mindy ajzner 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mindy ajzner 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every once in a while, you meet someone who surprises you. Often, it is someone who at first glance seems to fit a profile or stereotype, and then behaves in a manner that is at odds with all of your expectations. A Hell's Angels motorcycle gang member who plays the harp might be one example, a Satmar Hassid fond of stock car racing and professional wrestling would be another. Ra'anana resident Mindy Ajzner is no less surprising. A Toronto native who made aliyah five days after her wedding in 1982, Ajzner is concerned about Israel's poor. She is so concerned about the problem of poverty in Israel that, like hundreds of people before her, she has started her own non-profit organization to combat it. Predictably, she earnestly presents recent surveys and statistics that show that despite the current upturn in Israel's economy, poverty in the country remains persistent and intractable. As one would expect, she notes that upward of 775,000 children in Israel are living in poverty. And true to form, she declares that this is unacceptable and that something must be done to assist our country's poverty-stricken citizens. The surprise comes with what she says next: "The situation of the poor in Israel is very serious. But the question is why are they impoverished? What's the root of the problem? This is something that has been gnawing at me through all my work helping people manage their finances and coaching families in debt. And from dealing with a lot of people, and listening to people, and teaching people and giving training workshops, I realize that one of the biggest roots of the problem is mismanagement." Ajzner is very clear about what she means by "mismanagement," and where she thinks the problem is coming from. She is not talking about government mismanagement or mismanagement of the economy. She is not pointing the finger of blame at the usual scapegoats - government incompetence and political corruption - nor rounding up the usual suspects, like changes in Israeli culture and the widening gap between rich and poor. Nor is she searching for any macroeconomic reasons for poverty. Refreshingly, Ajzner is suggesting that people in Israel become poor and stay poor because they have mismanaged their own personal finances. "People just don't know how the whole thing works. They don't know how to make a budget, or live within their means." Is Ajzner merely echoing the old notions of 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism that imply that the poor somehow deserve their fate - that poverty is the natural result of weakness, laziness and lack of initiative? By no means, she says. Ajzner insists that people in Israel do not know how to make budgets or live within their means because no-one has ever taught them to do so. Nor are they taught how to plan for the future, make rational career choices, or put money away for their old age. "These things are just not taught - not in the home, and not in school," she says. So, after two years of coaching and assisting families in debt, Ajzner decided that the best way to deal with poverty is to prevent it through education. Furthermore, she determined that teaching people how to manage money should begin when they are young. "You can start teaching kids in kindergarten, the first time you send them to the grocery store to buy something and bring back change. That's already teaching money awareness. "But we really want to get them at a particularly critical stage in their life, which is when they get their driver's license and go into the army. When you get your license you start driving a car, and that involves a lot of expenses. When you get called to the army or national service, you are required to open a bank account. And that means you are required to know how to manage a bank account. That's why this age is such a critical turning point, and why we want to start our programs at this juncture of a person's life." With a bachelor's degree in education and certification as a senior bookkeeper, Ajzner developed a course to teach kids aged 17 and up how to manage their money. Modeled upon courses provided to more than four million young people in the U.S. by the National Endowment for Financial Education, Ajzner's course emphasizes achieving financial independence through careful money management and the strict avoidance of debt. Adapted toward Israeli conditions and provided in Hebrew, the course became so successful that it soon evolved into a fully-fledged, registered non-profit organization called Chaim BePlus - Financial Independence Training, which currently provides courses to young people and their "significant adult mentors" - parents and teachers - throughout Israel. Ajzner explains the meaning of the name Chaim BePlus as "living in plus - not in minus - in the bank." She notes that for most people the road to financial collapse and poverty begins with debt, that debt is a major problem in Israel, and that it can be prevented by education - if it is caught in time. Ajzner says, "Seventy per cent of Israelis are in overdraft. Overdraft is the first step toward economic downfall. Overdraft shows that the person just isn't managing. They're spending more than they are taking in. And with 70% of the people in overdraft, it's clear that the parents aren't going to be the ones to teach their kids money management skills, because 70% of the parents are in overdraft. But it's possible for anyone to achieve financial stability if you learn the right skills at the right time." Chaim BePlus thus offers its courses in financial management to high school seniors, young people in the army and national service, college and university students, students in hesder yeshivas and religious pre-military schools, engaged and newly-married couples, new immigrants, and teenagers in sheltered homes. The courses are given right where the students are, in their own schools. Ajzner says that her students represent all sectors of Israeli society - rich and poor, rural and urban, religious and secular. "We're going into groups in different areas, different socioeconomic groups, different religious levels, and we're adapting our programs to all these groups as we go. All this is meant to promote financial stability in Israel, and to bridge the social gaps." Chaim BePlus courses involve such topics as rules of sound money management, living within budgets, managing a bank account, understanding car expenses, financial decision making, saving for future needs and goals, and rational career planning. Another topic involves the careful monitoring of cellular phones which, as anyone with teenage children knows only too well, is a major hemorrhager of a family's monthly cash reserves. Ajzner remarks, "If you've got four kids, and they're each talking NIS 500 a month, that's already a monthly expense of NIS 2,000. How do people do this?" Special emphasis is placed on choosing a career, and some 60 different career choices are presented for analysis. By presenting young people with a rational array of lucrative career choices, is Ajzner concerned that she might be pre-empting the development of a great poet, dancer, artist or novelist? She says, "That's why we ask everyone in our courses to determine their own personal "passion" and balance their devotion to it with the need to make a living. But if your dream is to become an Israeli astronaut, and there's only one new candidate chosen every year and your chances of being selected are very low, then you need to think about something that will earn you a living. If your passion is something that can support you, then fine. But if it can't, then you need to make it a hobby, not a career choice." Each course consists of six one-hour sessions, and each session a separate module with its own topics and activities. The teaching style is dynamic, involving not only short lectures but also what professional trainers call "experiential" learning activities, like role plays, socio-dramas, and putting students through simulated problems and financial crises. There is also homework - financial plans, budgets, expense diaries and so on, which students are expected to present for later discussion and critique. Each participant is also presented with a spiral binder student manual, which serves both as a course textbook and as an interactive workbook. "We have an expert teaching staff," Ajzner says, "and all of our courses are designed and presented to achieve full academic quality." Chaim BePlus also offers courses to parents and high school teachers, as well as intensive, one-session financial independence courses for families. In her struggle to fight poverty through the teaching of financial responsibility, Ajzner identifies her major adversary as the "culture of temptation" of Israel today. "We have a culture of shopping malls, cell phones, going out and eating out. This culture has been imported from North America through all of the shows the kids are watching on TV. But this culture simply doesn't jive with the overall low level of salaries that people are earning here. So, for Israeli kids, our main task is to address the question of what you must have, and what is optional." Ajzner is especially determined to make kids realise how much parents are burdening themselves by over-indulging their children. "Forty percent of people reaching pension age in Israel have not put enough money away for pensions. They have simply given too much money away by indulging their kids. No-one else talks about this, but we do in our classes. I'll ask the kids how old their parents are, and they tell me that they're in their 50s. I then say, 'How many more years do you think your parents have to make money and support you? You guys have to start thinking about cutting down on the amount of money you're milking off your parents. They have got to put money away for their old age.' This hits the kids in the heart. It's something they can understand and relate to." Critics of Ajzner's notion that poverty results from a lack of personal responsibility could, of course, argue that it is spectacularly over-simplified, that Ajzner is blithely ignoring over 230 years of macroeconomic theory going back to Adam Smith, and that she has chosen to disregard the recent economic history of Israel, when the economic downturn of 2000-2001 caused substantial unemployment and pushed thousands of people below the poverty line. Ajzner knows what she has seen, however, and she has seen all too many Israeli families and individuals slide into poverty from spending more money than they earn. "When I give workshops to people who are middle-aged and pension-aged, I hear them say 'We're in trouble because of the government,' or 'We're in trouble because of the economy,' or 'We're in trouble because of the laws that have been passed,' or because they've cut this or that allowance…And I have to tell them, 'Listen, in your life you have reached a lot of junctures where you made choices, and most of what has happened to you economically was in your hands," she says. "You chose your profession. You chose the person you married. You chose where to buy your home. You chose how big your home was going to be. You chose how to live, you chose your lifestyle. You made these decisions. It's all a matter of personal choices. Everyone is the master of his own life. So, the earlier we get people, the more we can help them learn how to make the right choices and control how their lives are going to be." Ajzner's pragmatic, solution-focused approach of preventing poverty by providing young people with the skills to avoid debt has already shown many positive results. Some 140 people have graduated from the program thus far, many providing glowing testimonials of how those skills are enabling them to lead better lives. As Chaim BePlus grows and evolves, Ajzner envisions a broader coverage of the nation's schools; the production of films, plays and multimedia presentations about money management for young people, parents and teachers; series of presentations about careers and career choices by professionals from various fields; as well as a savings and investments club for Chaim BePlus graduates, with newsletters, meetings and national conventions. And ultimately, Ajzner dreams of an Israel without poverty. For information about Chaim BePlus-Financial Independence Training, call 054-4451961 or email mindy@chaimbeplus.com.