How Jewish Stereotypes Complicate My Struggles With Money

As an anxious Jew without a safety net, I sound like the punchline to every “cheap Jew” joke ever told.

I used to find the stereotypes about Jews and money almost funny. After all, many of them are so ludicrous — and so far removed from what most Jewish people I know are like — it was easy not to take them seriously.

But after I came out to my parents as queer, then had to leave home in a hurry, money became one of the biggest and most high-stakes problems in my life. How was I going to keep a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and finish my education? From this perspective, those stereotypes — especially about Jews being cheap — didn’t seem so funny anymore.

My parents often told me they didn’t believe I would be able to survive on my own without their support. I was determined to prove them wrong. In fact, I was over-determined — I thought since I had left home (and therefore turned my back on the financial security they had provided me, along with the homophobia), I didn’t have the right to ask anyone for help anymore.

“I am my only safety net,” I often found myself saying, as I looked at the numbers in my bank account and tried to make the math work. It didn’t help that my income was incredibly variable — restaurant work, freelance writing, and art commissions — so I never knew how much I would be bringing in from week to week. And, of course, my anxious brain translated that as “unless you have more work booked, better assume you’re not getting paid ever again.”

All of this meant that every time I spent money — no matter how small the sum — it felt like I was stumbling closer to the edge of failure.

It was an awful way to live.

I learned to feed myself on exactly $10.50 a week. I rarely felt full and had trouble focusing on my classes, but I could (sort of) deal with it. I also had pretty much nothing I could use to cook with. So, every weekend, I would block out at least four hours to prepare a bag of carrots for bean-and-carrot burgers. It’s a job that would have taken maybe 20 minutes with a cheese grater, but since I didn’t technically “need” one, I would do it with just a peeler and a knife. I couldn’t bring myself to go out and buy the right tool for the job. When I made a big batch of kugel — another cheap, filling dish — it took about six hours just to prepare the potatoes.

I once spent more than four hours walking across an unfamiliar city because I was terrified of spending an “unnecessary” $2.25 on bus fare, and I injured myself more than once biking on dark, slushy winter roads where the buses didn’t run rather than paying for a taxi. I still have scars on my hands and thighs from a few of those bad falls.

As my financial situation slowly started to level off, I tracked every dollar in a series of color-coded spreadsheets, tweaking the equations here and there as I grasped at stability. Keeping these spreadsheets (yes, multiple, concurrently) gave me a feeling of control over my situation and helped tamp down my fears about how any one thing could go wrong and completely derail the life I had been working so hard towards. When I filled in my budget, I felt a little better. So I budgeted relentlessly.

Even during that first year on my own, I knew this wasn’t just a foray into responsible personal finance — this was obsessive. I had convinced myself that maybe, just maybe, if I tracked my money closely enough and shaved my budget down to the bare bones, I would be okay. And while money was definitely tight, the way I handled it was closer to magical thinking and bargaining with the universe than any sort of sensible decision-making.

And the worst part was, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. My mental health was in a terrible place, which showed up in my grocery store panic attacks and inability to fall asleep if I hadn’t checked the spreadsheet first. I’m sure I would have benefited from some sort of professional help, or at least some friendly support. But I also knew the stereotype I was playing right into: an anxious Jew counting and recounting her money, scared to spend a cent. I sounded like the punchline to every “cheap Jew” joke ever told.

Even now, when I talk about my relationship with money, I worry about how this will reflect back on my Jewish community. We are living in some scary times, and I don’t want to be the one to give antisemites more fuel for their bigotry if I can help it.

But I can’t stay silent and pretend I’ve been okay, either.

My entire life has improved by a dizzying amount over the last few months — I have a job I love, I’ve won scholarships, and I’m starting to think less in terms of “how will I put food on the table this week?” and more about dreams, giving tzedakah, and even retirement… someday. Because of the pandemic, I’ve even found myself living with a wonderful family who treats me like a daughter, which is more than I ever could have wished for. I have never felt so happy, safe, or peaceful before.

I’m doing so much better than I was when I left home, but some nights, I still can’t sleep unless I spend a few minutes noodling around in my budget before bedtime. I still have trouble convincing myself to buy enough groceries to make nice meals rather than “bare-bones, how-far-can-I-stretch-12-potates” ones. And I still worry about how it looks to be a Jewish person so hyper-focused on money.

But on the other hand, keeping Jewish people so reluctant to play into stereotypes that we suffer through challenges like this alone is probably how a lot of antisemites would like the world to be. And I’m damn well not letting them win this one.

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