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Living on the plus side of the bank in Israel

Posted By Susan De La Fuente On December 9, 2007 @ 10:36 pm In | No Comments

Giving charity is a good deed, but how many people tackle the root causes of poverty by teaching people how to handle their finances properly? Israeli Mindy Wenner Ajzner has made financial independence training her personal challenge. The 46-year-old resident of Ra’anana founded Chaim BePlus (living on the plus side) in November 2006 to combat poverty through the education of Israeli youth.

Surveys have consistently shown that the average Israeli lives on overdraft – a unique bank-sanctioned situation in which expenses exceed income. While Americans may compensate for the same predicament with a slew of credit cards, Israelis are allowed by the banking system to establish a credit line with their account which enables them to go into ‘minus’ in their accounts. And once you’re there, it’s almost impossible to dig out.

“I’ve seen the ruined lives and the immense amount of money and time it took to rehabilitate families who were NIS 100,000 ($25,000) to a million shekels in debt,” said Ajzner who previously volunteered for a financial coaching organization in Ra’anana and Kfar Saba. “Most of the roots of poverty and terrible suffering are in mismanagement and lack of knowledge and skills.”

After nearly three years in the position, Ajzner sought solutions to remedy mishandling of personal finances and prevent future poverty. Convinced that the downslide towards poverty could be reversed in a cost-effective way by training 17 to 25 year-olds in sound money management right from the start, she founded Chaim BePlus from a basic education model provided by the US National Endowment for Financial Education.

Her project got started with a pilot program two years ago when foundations in Toronto and Melbourne – Ajzner’s and her husband’s hometowns – sponsored some courses for youth of different socio-economic backgrounds. Recently, Chaim BePlus has expanded to reach many schools, educational institutions, all socioeconomic sectors, new immigrants, young couples, and youth-at-risk.

“This past year we educated 350 kids in our target age group,” Ajzner told ISRAEL21c. “Evaluation showed a 50% increase in their financial management skills after taking our six session course.”

The basic six workshops each emphasize a different theme. The first stage of the course stresses acquisition of basic knowledge and concepts. What is the average wage? The meaning of overdraft and its implications is clearly articulated. Next are practical tools: how to read a bank statement, figure out bank charges and interest on overdraft, understanding your bills and filing them under different categories, writing down all expenses and drawing up a budget. Perhaps most important is mind-set or shaping of attitudes: determining priorities, learning to be responsible and economically independent.

Two popular issues are car maintenance and upkeep, and cell phone bills. According to Azjner, some kids don’t even know what their monthly phone bill amounts to.

During a recent interview on Israel’s Channel 2, she asked, “How will they be able to manage the economics of a household later on? To me all youth are at risk,” she added, concerned that a lifestyle of shopping malls, cell phones and easily obtainable credit is beyond the means of many Israelis.

During a presentation on careers to 12th grade girls in Kfar Saba, Ajzner distributed questionnaires and feedback forms, and then began a brief discussion about the necessity for women to work, the costs of raising a family: paying a heavy price for basics like education and medical care. Ajzner quotes the dire statistic that 40% of Israelis do not have money set aside for their old age.

The girls listened raptly as the panel of three speakers – an interior decorator and two architects – discussed their training, careers, income levels, family obligations, their balancing act between work and home. Being a salaried worker was a good learning experience, the women said, but was likely to inhibit freedom and career satisfaction later on.

Ajzner aims to fill the career guidance vacuum that currently exists in Israel. “People don’t know how much they will make if they enter a particular profession. You have to give them more data so they can make an informed choice,” she said.

The participants in the workshop all responded positively to the barrage of information. “It helped to hear how women manage to combine everything: studies, marriage, career, family,” said Moria, one of the girls taking part.

“Till now I thought I had a buffer period of my national [army] service – that I didn’t need to concern myself about the future,” Smadar admitted.

“It gave me direction. We don’t have much experience of life. I realized I must start to plan for the future,” echoed Inbar soberly.

A new venture being explored is signing up Chaim BePlus graduates for savings plans, with negotiations in process with banks and insurance companies. Ajzner also is urging alumnae to attend conferences twice a year.

“Our aim is to promote community awareness. We’d like our graduates to become committed to the Chaim BePlus way of life,” she declares.

And it’s not only for teens. Responding to public demand, workshops are also being given to parents, teachers and senior citizen groups. A recent spin-off is a two hour workshop providing financial advice for families.

A young couple who recently completed a management course expressed gratitude for Chaim BePlus’s words of caution. “By learning how to make an exact accounting of our income and expenses we were saved from serious economic downfall,” they said.

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