I’ve been living in Israel for eight years. I work with bank documents every day, but until I read Rifka Lebowitz’s new book, Smarter Israeli Banking, so much about accounts, fees, and banking was a mystery to me. Rifka Lebowtitz is the founder of the massively popular (over 21,000 members) Facebook Group Living Financially Smarter in Israel, where she generously contributes her knowledge, experience, and time. I learned about Smarter Israeli Banking through this group and other groups where Rifka and I are members, and I asked if I might get a copy of her book in order to offer my honest review and share with my clients.
Before reading the book, I thought much of bank policy was based on the whimsy of branch managers. Although much of operations are still branch-based, Lebowitz lifts the veil of mystery to expose the system of fees and regulations. While you won’t find a system of logic and customer service comparable to many English-speaking countries, discovering that there is consistency behind the mess off fees and forms is both comforting and empowering. I call it the “What to expect” of banking in Israel:
What fees you can expect
What fees are negotiable
What forms you’ll be asked to sign (like the infamous W-9 for US citizens)
Banking hours v. branch opening hours
Savings and investment options available within your bank account
How to make the most of in-house investment advisers
How banks extend credit
What types of accounts children are eligible for at different ages
I spoke with Rifka about how she became a financial consultant and why she wrote her book. Rifka moved to Israel with her family from Glasgow, Scotland at age 12. She grew up looking at her father’s copy of the Financial Times and wondering how people were making money in the stock market. She worked as a licensed Israeli portfolio manager until she “had a nagging feeling,” she says, that she “wanted to be helping people with their day-to-day finances.”
Rifka emphasizes, “It’s not about money. It’s really about living a valuable lifestyle and money being there to help people along… It’s about living smarter.” Rifka expresses: it’s not about having the most money at age 120. It’s worth spending money on the things you value, if you have it. “The money is there to serve us, not for us to run after it.”
On why she wrote the book: “I work with a lot of clients on their personal finances, and I see such frustration with the banks. It truly impacts their entire financial situation in Israel… The banks don’t want you to bounce a check, but they don’t tell you how not to bounce a check.” So, Rifka put together a book on everything people didn’t even know to ask.
After reading the book cover-to-cover, I finally understand types of overdraft, lines of credit, savings accounts, and why my clients using one bank are charged three to four times more for the same document than clients using a different bank.
Did you know there is no additional fee to take out money from an ATM not belonging to your bank? Did you know all post office branches function as one branch of the “Postal Bank”? I didn’t!
I also enjoyed the charming sketches and delightful appendix of “only in Israel” banking tales. These stories don’t just bring comic relief, Rifka points out, they help readers see they are not alone in their frustration.
Although Israel is stuck in an age where sending faxes and writing checks is still an important part of doing business. One of the most valuable chapters is about correctly writing checks. I’m embarrassed to admit before reading this book, I had no idea what the two horizontal lines at the top of a check (known as a “cross”) meant. After reading Lebowitz’s careful explanation complete with chart and “scared straight” stories, I finally understand the importance of writing “lamotav bilvad” with a “cross” on every check. (TIP: Have this printed on all your checks!)
I asked Rifka what she has in the works. Don’t hold your breath for the sequel to Smarter Israeli Banking. (I admit, I was hoping for Smarter Israeli Borrowing or The Oleh’s Guide to Buying a Home.) Rifka has two online courses in the works – one for olim to help plan and understand how much things should cost, and one for couples getting married.
I'm sure I will be referencing this book frequently. I will also be recommending this book to friends and clients, especially before someone moves to Israel. If you’re planning to move to Israel, please don’t wait until you’re on the plane to read this book! For example, you may need to go into the bank in your home country to set up your account to allow you to make international wire transfers. Lebowitz tells of a new oleh who, after already agreeing on terms to purchase an apartment in Israel, had to fly back to his home country to authorize the wire transfer!
While these situations can be frustrating, Rifka focuses on the positive. “All our great-grandparents would have loved to have a country like we have… I can’t change the banking system, but I can make it clearer to people.”
To buy the book and access an abundance of free information and resources, visit rifkalebowitz.com.
Book cover by Shanee Cooper; illustration by Ilana Ben David of איורי studio; headshot by Miriam Lottner.