By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
Traveling halfway across the world to a country with different food, different beliefs about the way to live your life, and different thoughts about money allows us to soak in an entirely new culture and how the people in that culture view finances and mental well-being.
It's a country where you can gaze at some of the most historical sites on the globe; where you can eat shawarma and falafel for five days in a row and hardly get tired of it; and where you can, as our tour guide said, “recharge the battery of your identity.” There are lessons that are as plentiful as desert rocks that can be picked up, examined, and stored away in your pocket for future observation.
In July, my family traveled to Israel on a group trip. My wife and I had been there 22 years earlier, but this time, we got to share the experience with our children and my in-laws. It was a trip rich with meaning and experience, a trip filled with food and merriment, and a trip loaded with memories and meaning that will last a lifetime.
And there were lessons, financial or otherwise, to be learned that can apply to The White Coat Investor audience. Here were six that I discovered while we were 7,100 miles away from home.
#1 Be Ready to Negotiate and Bargain
In many places in Israel—especially in the spots where you buy souvenirs, jewelry, or art—negotiating is expected as part of the transaction process. Me? I’ve never liked bargaining. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, and I don’t like the rigamarole of this conversation:
Me: “Hey, this is as marked at $50. But to be honest, that’s out of my budget. Can you do $35?”
Seller: “That $50 is already 15% off! But $35? That’s impossible. [Sighs.] I can’t do that. [Let’s out small groan of frustrating.] I could maybe sell it to you for $45.”
Me: “Jeez, I don’t know. [Rubs back of my head in frustration.] I really don’t want to go more than $40. Um, hmm. Can you do $40?”
Seller: “Nope, I can’t do it for so little. [Furrows eyebrow, adjusts his glasses.] Let’s do $42.”
Me: “It’s a deal!”
Aside from car showrooms and maybe pawn shops, bargaining isn’t a part of most American’s everyday lives. You pay what the price tag says. But in Israel, this kind of bartering is expected.
I blew it with my first chance while negotiating a taxi ride for my in-laws outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Well, it wasn’t a negotiation at all. The driver said the five-minute ride to the hotel would cost 50 shekels (about $13.50). I accepted it like a chump (in reality, the driver probably would have accepted 30 shekels).
But later in the trip, I negotiated down a necklace for my son from 898 shekels (about $240) to 850 shekels ($229), a solid if not spectacular victory, and a few days later in Safed, I convinced the clerk that because we were buying multiple pieces of jewelry, he should give us a 20% discount instead of the 15% he had already offered. We settled on 18%.
Even if you dislike negotiating like I do, it’s still worth playing the bartering game. Even if you’re only saving a few shekels at a time, hey, that’ll buy you even more shawarma and falafel.
#2 Much of the Country Shuts Down for the Sabbath – and It’s Great for Mental Wellbeing
From Friday evening to Saturday at sundown, much of the country goes into hibernation. That’s because many Jewish residents observe the Sabbath, aka Shabbat, meaning they can’t drive cars; shop; use their phones; write, erase, or tear; turn on or off anything that uses electricity; or cook and bake during those 24 hours.
I don’t observe those rules, because I’m not a religious man and because I wasn’t raised in that lifestyle. But I can see the appeal from a life-balance perspective. We drove the streets of Jerusalem on Saturday, and traffic was non-existent. As our tour bus passed by orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, we could see scores of men and women walking to their destinations in the 95-degree heat, we could see children riding scooters in the street, and we could see families gathering just to be present.
No electronics and no list of chores to complete. Just the entire day to reflect.
I was only an outside observer, but I also felt a sense of peace. For those 24 hours, you don’t need to worry about checking your email or mowing your lawn or driving your kids to their soccer games. You’re actually not allowed to do those things. So, why not sit back and relax and spend time with those you love? In a secular world of non-stop distractions and never-ending cultural cacophony, it must be wonderful to just simply be.
My favorite observance during this holy day? In the country’s hotels, one of the elevators is designated “the Shabbat elevator.” It stops at every floor without the occupants having to do anything but walk on and walk off. All day long, the elevator stops at the lobby. Then, it stops on the first floor. Then, the second, and the third. Once it gets to the top, it stops once again at every floor on its descent.
The reason why? Those who observe the Sabbath aren’t allowed to press the elevator buttons, and in the Shabbat elevator, that’s not a requirement. How those who observe Shabbat can get around the fact that electricity takes them to their destination is complicated. But the Shabbat elevator is a fun workaround.
On Sunday, Israel was back to normal. People got sucked back into their phones. Traffic tied us up for hours. All the distractions returned. But for those 24 hours of observing Shabbat, you could feel relaxed and refreshed. To have a set time to do that once a week is probably a wonderful part of Israeli life.
More information here:
#3 Spend Extravagantly Where You Want, But Go Cheaper If You Don’t Care
We were told before the trip that finding a laundromat near our hotels would be nearly impossible, and when you’re on a 12-day trip and you’re bringing one large suitcase and one carry-on, having enough clean clothes to last you the entire journey can get dicey.
We were staying at some of the most high-end hotels in the country. But we also didn’t want to spend hundreds of shekels just to do a little bit of laundry. Call it a little bit of thriftiness on a really nice vacation.
Below is the laundry list from our hotel at the Dead Sea, where it would have cost 19 shekels (about $5) to clean a pair of pants, 10 shekels (about $2.75) per T-shirt, and 7 shekels (a little less than $2) per undergarment.
Were the prices outrageous? Not really (unless you were paying $29 to clean a suit). But I also didn’t want to spend a bunch of money just for a couple days of clean clothes.
We ended up taking the travel laundry suds that we brought with us from home and washed a few pieces of clothing in the bathroom sink, rinsed them out, and placed them on our hotel deck to dry. One of the other families in our group found a laundry service that cleaned five kilograms of their clothes for $50. Again, not life-changing money, but on a group tour where everybody wore outfits multiple times without the benefit of a washing machine, there wasn’t much need to spend the extra money for something that wasn’t imperative.
My new motto: Stay at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem, but make sure you can set up your own laundry service in your hotel room.
#4 Doctors Can Save Money on Housing . . . by Living at the Hospital
While enjoying a lunch cruise on the Red Sea (where, sadly, shawarma and falafel were not on the menu) near the borders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, I got into a conversation with our tour guide, Ami, about being a doctor in Israel. His daughter is an ENT resident, and he said she actually lives on the hospital grounds.
She and her family reside in an apartment that might cost $1,000 per month (compare that to spending $2,000 per month in a normal location in the same city), and her child goes to kindergarten on the grounds. From my understanding, it’s comparable to living on an army base.
While living next door to where you work certainly limits your choices, Israel doesn’t offer physician mortgage loans like you can get in the US. Plus, people are expected to put down 33% for a house down payment instead of 20%.
While Israeli doctors are almost assuredly in the upper middle class, most are not making the kinds of salaries that high-earning physicians in the US can earn. Interestingly, a physician shortage has become an issue, because, according to the Israel Journal of Health Policy Research, there has been “a decrease in the supply of physicians in Israel resulting from the declining flow of immigrant physicians from the former Soviet Union” and because 38% of residents in a recent survey said they would leave the country to practice medicine.
That seems to be particularly true in Family Medicine. One day, Ami asked his daughter why she wanted to go into ENT and not into FM (where salaries are rising to compensate for declining participation), and she said, “Family Medicine is too boring.”
More information here:
#5 Global Entry Is a Must When Traveling Internationally
Whenever I travel internationally and return back to the US to clear passport control and customs, it’s always pleasantly surprising how much time Global Entry can save us. Pay $100 total for five years to this Customs and Border Protection program (which also includes TSA Pre-Check), and after you’re pre-approved, you get expedited clearance whenever you return to America.
In 2022, we traveled to Atlanta from Jamaica, and even though hundreds of people were stuck in the passport control line, we literally had no wait and sailed directly through. Coming back from Israel to New York City, the overhead signs said that the wait time was approximately an hour. Not for Global Entry. There wasn’t a single soul in the Global Entry line, and the whole process took us less than 30 seconds to complete.
Seriously, there might not be a better deal in all of international travel.
#6 You’ve Got to Make Yourself Comfortable
A married couple on our trip brought enormous suitcases with them, and we later learned that part of the reason for their oversized luggage was that they always travel with ergonomic pillows.
Turns out they’re both dentists, and they schlep around those pillows because it helps their necks and backs stay healthy. After reading this disability insurance piece from WCI columnist (and former dentist) Tyler Scott, I now understand why it was imperative for them to make sure they sleep the right way. Their income and wealth depend on this little bit of inconvenience.
More information here:
Money Song of the Week
In the Eastern European town of Anatevka at the beginning of the 20th century, there were hardly any rich men or women. In the 1971 classic film “Fiddler on the Roof,” you had a milkman, a tailor, a matchmaker, and a town beggar. None had loads of money. True, the town butcher was considered wealthy, but otherwise, the Anatevka residents could only dream of being rich.
When Tevye, the milkman who has five daughters, finishes up his chores for the day, he has a conversation with God and fantasizes about having a small fortune. In “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye sounds like he knows exactly what he’d do with it. As he sings,
“I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen/Right in the middle of the town!
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below,
There would be one long staircase just going up/And one even longer coming down,
And one more leading nowhere, just for show!”
It’s not just the staircase to nowhere, though. If he were wealthy, his wife could have a double chin and scream at their servants all day and night while the most important men in town would come to fawn all over him.
Unfortunately for Tevye, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story. This is (SPOILER ALERT) more of a rags-to-banishment story that ends on an unhappy note.
The man who played Tevye in the film and on Broadway and in the West End for decades, legendary Israeli actor Chaim Topol, died in March 2023. But he played an important role in showing, according to Real Clear Markets, how important economic growth is to society:
“‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is set in the year 1905. It is instructive to think about what it meant to be rich in 1905, as many people today would find Tevye’s view on being prosperous staggering. In this song, Tevye sings about wanting chickens and other small farm animals in his yard, a well-fed wife, and some free time. This would not sound rich to the average American today.
“However, the song presents a realistic view of what dreams of being well-to-do would have seemed like in 1905. The average poor person today in America and most first-world countries today has an income that is considerably higher than Tevye’s, and may even be wealthier than the lifestyle Tevye dreams about. In this way, ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ is incredibly valuable for showing us the genius of economic advance. We’ve made so much progress that the average poor person in first-world countries today is incredibly rich by 1905 standards.”
Tweet of the Week
— The ₿itcoin Therapist (@TheBTCTherapist) August 18, 2023
As of the close of business on Thursday, Bitcoin was priced at $25,769. But hey, there’s good news. YTD, it’s still up 55.59%.
What lessons have you learned from recent travels? Would you like to read more travel adventures from WCI columnists and readers and the financial lessons they've learned? Comment below!
[Editor's Note: For comments, complaints, suggestions, or plaudits, email Josh Katzowitz at [email protected].]