Monthly Deficit in the Thousands – What do you do?

Reader Q&A

I just responded to a question from a new reader on my About Me page, but it was such a pull-at-my-heart question, that I wanted to share it as a post, too. I’m sure Jeff can’t be the only one going through this – and maybe this discussion will help others as well.

Here’s what he asked:

My wife showed me your website, she subscribes to your daily updates. I read your Jewish Dave Ramsey series and had a few questions. I welcome responses from other readers as well.


I think you mentioned Dave Ramsey’s advice to first get your income more than your expenses, then to get current with all bills before setting up an emergency fund. We are stuck at income vs. expenses and have been for many years. We have deficit of $1,000s of dollars monthly, and have been burning through savings accounts and even retirement accounts. Now there is nothing else to burn and bills are falling behind. Income is as high as possible. Expenses are not as low as possible, but even cutting expenses would not be enough to cover the deficit. How do you or Dave Ramsey or your readers suggest getting out of this predicament?

Thanks in advance,

And here is what I answered (with some more extrapolation):

Just to be sure I’m understanding correctly – are you saying that you’re spending thousands of dollars a month more than you take home? If this is the case, then yes – you are probably right that cutting your bills, even by 20 or 30%, likely won’t make up the difference.

When there is this big of a discrepancy, I think you absolutely must look at the big-ticket items: mortgage, day school, cars (if you have loans/leases) and any other big bites that you have every month.

Yes, you still need to cut your lifestyle. No more keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. I’m talking groceries – your menu plan needs to be centered around beans, rice, pasta and peanut butter; clothing – stop buying it; kids activities – stop participating in them. But you also need to accept that a larger move is probably necessary. Literally and/or figuratively.

I know that this is horrible to hear (I feel bad saying it!), but odds are, if you are dealing with a monthly deficit in the thousands, you already know this anyway – at least in your heart of hearts.

Each month that goes on like this will require another year or more of PROFOUND sacrifice to dig yourself out of. If you don’t make changes right now, you may well end up bankrupt. Without a house (foreclosed) or a car (repossessed). Make these decisions now – for yourselves – before the bank makes them for you.

Yes, I’m talking about getting radical, which may involve all or some of the following:

  • selling your house and moving to a new city, which is more affordable (this post on How much do you need to earn to live comfortably has some good insights in the comments section)
  • selling your house, staying in town, but moving into a small apartment, even if that means all of your kids have to share a room temporarily
  • getting second jobs
  • selling stuff – not garage sale stuff (although that will help), but cars, boats, jewelry, artwork, etc.
  • and yes, pulling your children out of dayschool. 

If the monthly deficit is not a short-term problem but a long-term reality (as it appears to be from your comment), you are facing deep and, I’m sorry to say, painful changes.

But there is a silver lining. You will have each other. You will be a family, with integrity, self-respect and – most importantly – each other! Your wife, your kids – this is what matters. Everything else is extraneous.

Once you start making these changes, you can move forward. The direction will be different and the landscape may be unfamiliar, but you will be together – as a family, living in a way that allows you to look at yourself in the mirror every single day! I promise you – it will be worth it!

What do you all think? Do you think this advice is spot-on? Way off base? Do you think you could make these kinds of changes?


  1. Bethany Shondark Mandel says

    Good advice.

  2. gosh! that kind of advice hurts. but like you said, best to make the change before you are dug in so deep your things are literally ripped from your hands!

  3. I agree with every thing but pulling the kids out of day school. Jewish education is too important. Speak to the school and see what can be done first.

    • Not just the school — talk to your Rav. However, if they won’t budge, you have to bite the bullet. You can’t afford it you can’t afford it.

    • I assume they already had, Chana. But yes – if they haven’t availed themselves of that yet, I’d agree.

      That said, I really believe that Jewish education isn’t just about the school. I don’t know that my husband and I alone could give our kids the skills and breadth of knowledge we want them to have, but we’d certainly make it a very top priority if we were in this situation.

      • I agree it is extremely important. Two of my kids have been in public school for the past year so I am aware of the consequences of doing that as well.

        But if you literally don’t have the money to pay, what do you do?

        I wonder all the time at how infrequently the question of “how am I going to pay” seems to enter the discussion when people talk about day school – where or whether to send. People talk very casually about “maybe I’ll send my kid here” when the tuition is $18,000, af it it’s not a consideration at all!

        Sometimes I feel like I missed a class somewhere, or I’m not in on some secret, because even though people talk all the time about not being able to afford tuition, I’m still the only one with kids in public school. So how are people literally paying that bill?

        • tdr — you’re totally right — and you’re doing the responsible thing! If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. Far too many schools — and people — think that it’s acceptable to hit up the grandparents, dip into the 401(k), etc., to pay for day school. Wrong. Jewish education does not have to come from a traditional day school. There are MANY ways to give your kids a Jewish education even if they attend public school. We homeschooled (and please, socialization is completely a non-issue if you’re in a community) in part because of money and in part because the day schools were just not up to par on the secular studies, and I’m not planning to support my kids in their adulthood.

        • I have a friend whose parents decided that they could teach their children how to live Jewishly but they could not teach their children algebra, chemistry, or (as recent immigrants) the structure of the English language. They chose public school for their children, who remain actively involved in observant communities.

          I have frum family members whose children’s educational needs were not able to be served in their local day schools, and they put their children into public school. Their children remain actively involved in observant communities.

          My husband and I, both public school graduates, are actively involved in an observant community. We are committed to day school education for our family, but if we cannot find a way to pay for it without bankrupting ourselves, I am certain that we will utilize the excellent public schools in our area while finding ways to steep our children in love for (and education about) living Jewishly.

        • tdr – I think the “secret” is sick amounts of debt. 🙁

    • I also agree withe everything, except pulling the kids from school. Speak to the school board or whoever is in charge of the tuition breaks, and speak to your Rav. Jewish education (along with the education that we provide at home) are extremely important!

  4. One thing that Dave Ramsey typically does when someone calls him (I find the podcast to be inspirational and informative) is target where the problem is. By this I mean three are 3 legs to the stool. Income, Expenses, and Debt. Since there is such a huge discrepancy between income and outflow, it’s possible that rather than an Expenses problem you guys have an Income problem. This is the hardest one to turn around and it possibly takes the longest, but ultimately this may be where you have to focus for the long haul.

    I realized that about myself awhile back and made changes about my professional direction that would ultimately improve my income.

    I strongly recommend you listen to Dave. This is a guy who had a wife and a baby and was being sued from all sides and he eventually went bankrupt (I think). At times they did not know where the money would come from to pay the electric bill. But they stuck together, they got RADICAL and they made it through.

    Another thing I find helpful is when you are so in the hole you have to know what to prioritize. Dave always tells people to pay first housing, food, transportation (or something like that). Credit cards are at the bottom of the heap. (and stop using them) Many creditors will open negotiations if you stop paying for 6 months (but beware that forgiven debt is taxable)

    Last of all — keep in mind: whatever you do that is radical IT WON’T BE FOREVER. Sometimes that stuff seems impossible because you forget it’s temporary. Can you put up with for a year or two? That may do the trick.

    Good luck!

  5. The advice you gave was on the spot but I think more information is necessary to properly help them. For example, what does the writer mean by “income is as high as possible?” Is this while working one job each? How about working a second job or Sunday? Also, if it is just a situation where expenses exceed income, then cutting expenses will help, but it will take a long time to get out of the hole if income does not rise. The writer has to pinpoint how they got into the trouble and write out what concrete steps they have taken or will take to rectify their situation.

  6. Dear Jeff,

    While I think that Mara’s advice provides an excellent foundation, may I also suggest contacting a local social service agency? There are many kinds of assistance available depending on the agency: perhaps financial counseling, vocational assistance, or other services could be made available to you.

    I wish you and your family the best of luck weathering the storm. Please know that you are not alone and that there are avenues available to help you.


  7. Mara, I think your advice is right on. Our family has been going through a similar situation, and though we’ve finally begun to turn our lives around, it’s taken a lot of work and sacrifice. We’ve cut all of our expenses to the bare bones, and when we thought we couldn’t cut anymore, we found more ways. We cut our cable, and our phone services, we sold our cars and bought “new to us” cars with the equity to get rid of the car payments, and we eat healthy but definitely frugal meals.

    I know the day school issue is a hot button for some people, but being in the same place, we actually chose to pull our kids from the day school for a year. Even though we were receiving financial aid for our kids, spending ANYTHING on their education, when we have top notch schools that are free didn’t make sense to us. We needed to make sure that we could keep the roof over our heads and food on our table. Our plan is to have ourselves in a secure enough place financially to reenroll them the following year. Moving to a smaller house unfortunately isn’t an option since our house, like everyone else around us, is underwater with the crash of the housing market.

    Along with cutting all of our expenses, we’ve picked up extra jobs to increase our income. Since we still have 1 child who is not yet in school, I’ve found ways to work from home.

    Jeff, just know that you are not alone, and as Mara said, you can work through it and there is a lot of support out there. There are agencies set up to assist you if you need assistance.

  8. I’d love to hear more from Jeff. It seems like at one time the family had it right because he mentions savings and retirement accounts that they have burned through. Somehow they established these in the first place (at least the retirement account!). Clearly between then and now something went wrong. I have my guess as to what those somethings might be and I’d love to find out what they are.

    Such a shame the issue was not dealt with sooner because procrastination never makes financial issues better. I’m cheering for your financial recovery Jeff!

    • This also speaks to the issue of a sufficiently large emergency fund, though it’s possible people don’t dial back their spending when a crisis hits to stretch out use of that fund as much as possible.

      I read an article recently on “day school affordability” that suggested saving for a rainy day was a want and not a need.

  9. I think that Mara gets to the heart of a critical issue — the day school issue. My personal take? It’s flat out irresponsible parenting to keep kids in private school if you can’t afford it. Yes, Jewish education is important. But Jewish education does NOT have to come from an expensive private school.

    Far too many people simply see this as nonnegotiable, and as long as that attitude exists, day schools will continue to charge exorbitant tuition and families will continue to suffer.

    Jeff, it SUCKS to hear, but I promise you that if Mara looked at your income v. expenses, she would find ways to cut. Basically, if anyone other than you and wife looked at your income v. expenses, they could do this, too — because they don’t hold sacred what you hold sacred.

    Sell a house or car? HOW CAN I DO THAT? You screech. But an economist would look at the numbers and take the emotion out of it — and that’s what you need to do. If you have a close, trusted friend or family member who can sit with you and be your conscience, that might help. Otherwise, you and your family — and perhaps your kids, depending on their ages — need to sit down and get real with each other. If you “own” a home you can’t afford, you need to get rid of it. If you rent something beyond your means, it’s time to step down. I love nice things, and admitting that I can’t afford them is NO FUN AT ALL, but it’s been my reality at various times.

    I think the critical thing to remember is that there are NO sacred cows. EVERYTHING — including day school — is negotiable.

  10. Many people discount homeschooling as a viable option for educating their kids – it’s not for everyone, but many families have done it quite successfully. (And no, socialization is not an issue).

  11. Great advice and suggestions!

  12. Hi, Jeff.
    First off, let me say: KUDOS TO YOU AND YOUR WIFE FOR DOING THIS!! You will never, ever regret getting out of debt, as hard as it is.

    There is amazing advice on this website, and I personally have emailed Mara to thank her for her wonderful help in providing ideas and sites to cut back on expenses. (My girls wore super winter coats that were $12 each from Amazon, found through this site.)

    HOWEVER, this is a Jewish/religious website, and from all the comments, I didn’t see the following advice: PRAY! Of course, you must take all the steps you can take (i.e. hishtadlus) but without Siyata d’Shmaya (help from Above), no one can do anything. This understanding is critical to getting out of debt and keeping a healthy mindset while trying to do it.

    Also, I was dismayed to see comments about taking children out of a frum school. Our Yiddishkeit is non-negotiable. Putting children in a public school, especially when their friends are in a yeshiva (if this is the case), can be extremely detrimental to their understanding of what being religious is all about. Many Jewish school have scholarship funds or community funds they can dip into for your sake. Please, please, ask your local Rov about this. Also, if you or your wife teach in a religious school, the school may not charge you tuition, a fact that helps many people who are struggling.

    May you soon be blessed with an abundance of all you need so that things will be easier!

    • All of the responses are good however, there is NO SUCH THING as taking frum kids out of day school. I am on The fiance committee at one of our day schools and know for a fact that my school will work with the parents, almost all out of town day schools have a no child left behind policy. Our Bubbies and Zadies in Europe went with out FOOD in order for their kids to learn torah. End of story.

      • In fact, our Bubbies and Zadies had it pretty darn good in Europe — that’s why they didn’t leave prior to their lives being threatened. They certainly did not go without food to learn Torah — at least not anyone I’ve ever met.

    • Our day schools are FULL of “teachers” whose only credential is “poor member of the community who otherwise couldn’t afford tuition.” These are NOT by a long shot the BEST teachers — often, they are not even REMOTELY qualified to teach the subjects they teach.

      And if you seriously believe that rearing children in a frum household that teaches RESPECT FOR YOURSELF AND THE COMMUNITY BY NOT LIVING ABOVE YOUR MEANS is “detrimental to their understanding of what being religious is all about” then you and I have a serious difference of opinion on what our responsibility is as parents, as Jewish parents, and as responsible members of society.

      We homeschooled our daughters at various times to get out of the tuition rat race. We enrolled our special needs son in PUBLIC SCHOOL because the day schools in town FLAT OUT SAID they didn’t want him. I resent very much the whole attitude that children cannot be Jewish or frum if they are not in day school.

      I also went to public school. I was one of about six Jewish kids in my grade and maybe 15 in the entire school. By far, my family was the most observant of those 15. And you know what I learned? I learned that being Jewish, being frum, keeping kosher, keeping shabbat, etc. is something that takes HARD WORK EVERY DAY.

      Contrast with the kids I saw on their cell phones during “davening” at the day school I pulled my kids from, and… yeah.

      • WG,

        I am sorry if you are offended, however I could not disagree with you more. There is no better education for ones children then to sacrifice everything for spiritual goals. Our physical needs can be sacrificed, we can eat cheap food and live in a small apt. however, we can never settle for second best when it comes to spiritual matters. In todays day and age it is a near impossibility to reach ones spirtual potential with out dayschools and yeshivos. Jewish education is the lifeblood of Torah Judaisim and there can be no compromises, everything else is secondary.


        • Please, Efraim. If the day school issue were truly that important to the community, then they wouldn’t have asked us to take our special needs son elsewhere. It was THE SCHOOL that was not willing to even TRY to accomodate him — even when WE PERSONALLY funded special assistance for him.

          Don’t tell me that my kid can’t reach his spiritual potential. He has more spirit in his little finger than MANY people who dress the part of frum.

  13. If day school is an unshakeable goal for your kids and you have exhausted all other ways of paying for it, could you or your wife volunteer at a school in a way that would save the school money?
    Surely, the school has enough teachers, but what about nighttime maintenance staff? Doing kitchen work/cleanup for special events? There probably a lot of ways to save the school money.
    Maybe if you approached your Rav and the school director with your offer, they would see how this is a critical issue for your family. Volunteering to do cleanup, etc. for your school – anything to keep your kids there- would surely convince them to allow your children to continue their Jewish forum education at the school.
    And if they ignored religious parents’ humble offer to do this work for the school, then I wonder if your children are really missing anything by not attending there.

  14. Ephraim, You paint a with a rather broad brush! Sometimes “second best” is what is best for the spiritual needs. When money is short, the yetzer hara kicks in big time. I’d say that if your mental health is at stake, your marriage is at stake, your finances are crumbling around you, and you start thinking about how to be a snake oil salesman or defraud either “the man” or any person, you are walking into dangerous spiritual territory.

    Another note, day schools simply can’t accommodate every person’s financial needs. In fact, if the institution of yeshiva is so important, I don’t think it responsible of every yeshiva to try to do so because raising tuition on the shrinking number of payers may very well mean endangering the entire institution of day school/yeshiva. What happens when a community is so generous to those who can’t find the money they have to close their doors?

    • The yeshivas and day schools fund raise to help the families and with g-ds help it is fine. Not everything is negotiable.

      I am heavily involved in the finances of many frum institutions and we NEVER kick out because people can’t pay.

      If anything the Rabonim will get together and give them money for their living expenses and shabbos food.

      On one occasion it was my job to speak to someone about thier abiltiy to pay. They explained the dire straights they were in, I knew it was true. My response was do not worry about it we will talk when you get back on your feet. I then got him on Shabbos food assistance and checked in with him periodically to make sure his basic needs were met.

      This is how things are done in the jewish community.

      • Again, Efraim, that may be true in your community, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s true everywhere. Just as you know people, I also know people personally who were told, flat out, either pay up, or get out.

  15. Another comment. . . . .we make plenty of choices to make our children’s pricey education possible, but I don’t think that going without FOOD in today’s day and age would be appropriate if FOOD is really what it comes down to (I’m not talking about a nice diet consisting primarily of pasta, beans, and rice). In fact, I dare venture that there were many people in history turned off to yiddishkeit and observance because they associated it with poverty.

    Sadly, today we see a different type of poverty which is debt-induced, where the trappings look good but the foundation is crumbling.

    • No one said you should go with out food today.

      I am merely ilustrating the how far one should go to ensure Jewish education

  16. Beverlee says

    If we feel that the only way we can raise observant Jewish kids is by sending them to day schools, then we’re not doing a good job as Jewish parents, IMHO. My two children are at day school, and we scrimp and save and sacrifice a lot to send them there, but if it came down to REALLY not being able to afford it, we’d send them to public school and they’d still be fine. We have a Jewish home, they have Jewish friends, we’re active in the community, and knowing that Bobby in the next desk celebrates Easter isn’t going to change that.

    So yes, day school must be one of the things on the chopping board. If you’re so worried about finances that you can’t enjoy your time with your family, that’s going to do way more damage than having the kids explain to the teacher why they can’t eat the pepperoni pizza. Really.

  17. I feel like we’re all talking at cross purposes here. The typical out-of-town day school is not the same as the yeshiva in-town. Sending a child to public school (rather than homeschooling them) in an in-town community (i.e. New York!!) sends a strong message to the children. As far as Efraim’s point, I know quite a few people who cannot pay tuition for their children in the yeshiva schools. No one has asked them to leave their respective schools, and I just attended a graduation where one of the children of these families was awarded the top academic prize. The children are valued in the yeshiva system – their parents have fallen on hard times, and this is very understandable to the school board. However, this is in New York. I don’t know what it’s like other places and I feel like this conversation has split between ‘yeshivish’ schools and ‘day schools’.

  18. People feel very passionately about this topic. No one should ever get to the point where they feel like they want to send their children to public school. Some posters have commented that they themselves went to public schools; times have changed. I have been out of public school for less than 10 years and the whole atmosphere is toxic. Its not just a matter of knowing and being ok with the kid next to you celebrating Easter. The dress, activities, interactions between students, speech content, etc. are inappropriate and detrimental to expose your children to. Speak to your Rav and daven for clarity and honesty with yourself.

  19. Rivka H. says

    Mara – I was actually thinking of asking you to address the topic of mesirus nefesh for chinuch. Someimes we get so caught up in the process of saving money, and forget why we are doing it.

    While it might be necessary to take kids out of yeshiva if no deal can be made for tuition, I think this should be the absolutely last thing to be cut from the budget.

    • I’m flattered, Rivka. I’m afraid, though, that that type of post might cross into the “not my field of expertise” territory! What Frankie & I would do, or where I personally draw the ‘self sacrifice’ line won’t necessarily be helpful to the next person. If people find themselves in this predicament, I’d definitely encourage you to (a) get on the same page with your spouse (that may or may not be easy) and (b) talk with your Rav.

  20. anonymous says

    As a frum teacher in a large, urban public school district; I feel I have a unique perspective in this situation. As I am also a BT, I went to public school my whole life (in a small town) in a very different place and time than I am raising my own kids now. While the amount of debt being discussed is drastic, I am divided on the day school situation. In my city, sending kids to public school has the potential for serious consequences. While many public school teachers are great and the education can be rigorous, the peer group is what would concern me the most. In large urban cities, many schools (rated highly or not) have issues such as drugs, violence (maybe not in the school but in the students homes), pregnancy, inappropriate language/sexual comments, etc. Very often what neighborhood you live in determines the school your child goes to. Is it possible to stay frum in that type of situation? Yes, probably with a strong family/ community. However, I prefer to keep my children away from those types of influences. Additionally, as a BT I want to give my child every advantage possible both spiritually and religiously.

    I feel as though the frum community has made certain things the “norm” such as camp, day school, etc. These norms are very costly on top of the high cost of living in many cities. The bottom line is if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it.

  21. I don’t have any children yet, so I can’t fully relate, but I am also probably among the ‘younger’ crowd reading this blog and so I thought I would something out. I have gone to Jewish schools my entire educational career (until graduate school), and I think people are a little naive if they think that they can avoid inappropriate behavior/dress/speech, drugs, etc by sending their kids to a Jewish school. Of course it is more of an issue in a public school, but it is DEFINITELY present in Jewish schools. So even though at this point in my life I plan on sending my future kids to day school as a top priority, I can see understand the perspective of the people who think that day school education is not always worth the debt associated. (Especially when most people find numerous flaws in the level of Judaic or secular education at the local Jewish day schools, and in addition to the numerous peers I have who grew up in frum homes, went to frum schools and are now either barely religious or not religious at all)

  22. It is sad that in these posts there is arguing. We cannot judge anyone for their choices. Circumstances vary so much based on where you live. If we were to pull our kids from day school they would have to go to a not great district. The influences there would not be good at all. I think the key here us that we asbloggers are offering lots of different ways to save, spend less, etc. and then you choose what works best for your own family.

  23. It is sad that in these posts there is arguing. We cannot judge anyone for their choices. Circumstances vary so much based on where you live. If we were to pull our kids from day school they would have to go to a not great district. The influences there would not be good at all. I think the key here us that we as bloggers are offering lots of different ways to save, spend less, etc. and then you choose what works best for your own family.

    • No one is judging individuals we are judging ideas.

      I am judging the concept as wrong, it is not my job to judge people, however a concept can be judged.

      And i don’t think that disagreements are sad, I think that through candid discussion people can come to clarify what they hold to be true.

  24. I have just discovered this website and find myself right at home. Yasher koach Mara for taking on such a variety of challenging issues. If anyone would like to find out more about Jewish Homeschooling, please visit my blog. I am more than happy to answer questions on this topic.

Leave a Comment