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On the Money: the conversation continues

Normal sounds great, but has boundaries that are hard to ascertain and easy to manipulate, and it’s often thrown around to justify abnormal spending

 

Apparently, money is a loaded topic. Our discussion “On the Money” focused on elevating the material and finding a healthy direction for abundance. In reaction, there was a broad summing up of, “Thanks for bringing up the runaway materialism, it’s the most crucial issue of our times.” There was also, “I need to help support my family and there are loads of expenses and expectations; can we talk about that?”

 

Can’t Pay the Mortgage with Safety Pins

Your expectation of people to value money the same way they would a safety pin is unrealistic. In order to be the best versions of ourselves, we need our needs to be met. (Maslow’s hierarchy is a good model for this). And if I didn’t have money to pay my tuition and grocery bills, safety pins aren’t exactly coming to the rescue.

We get worked up about money; it’s important to rein the worry in and stay calm. That’s true even if we’re broke and there’s something that we really want — or need — but can’t have. The best version of ourselves will not be served by panic, fighting, or losing our cool. Hence, the idea of trying to relate to money like safety pins was offered as a helpful tool.

But a mashal can only be taken so far. I had no intention for you to now include a note in your IRS returns that says, “In lieu of taxes, we have included a box of safety pins and made a donation in your name to the local Tomchei Shabbos.”

The idea is to work on keeping the subject of money in a mental drawer in our brains. We decide when and how to open it, based on practicality and maturity, not emotion. You point out that it’s difficult, and I agree.

The Torah describes how Korach and his crowd were swallowed up with their homes and possessions, “ ‘and all that was under their feet’ — this is their money [because it] puts someone on their feet”(Sanhedrin 110a), Money is more than essential; it’s restorative.

But your respect for those green guys should have limits. Kli Yakar (Devarim 11:7) explains that money “was under their feet’’ because it helps the most basic part of you get bearings and “grounds’’ you, but that’s where it begins and ends. Granting money swollen importance reduces a person “down to the ground,” as it did the wealthy Korach. Keep money apart from yourself, and not highly regarded, just as someone needs firm ground, but doesn’t give it much thought.

When in Rome

My parents live in an upscale community and my husband and I made a conscious decision to live a different, simpler lifestyle. However, it means a lot to my parents that when I go to them for Yom Tov, I dress the family really nicely. I also upgrade my simchahs so my parents will feel like it’s a “real simchah.” I hope this will teach my children the value of derech eretz. But am I living a double standard?

Acting differently at different times is not a double standard but an expression of good life skills. Not all situations are created equal, and there are different correct responses to various circumstances. A (short, 20-year-old) girl complained, “My mother insists that I wear heels to my cousin’s bar mitzvah in the Five Towns this Sunday. What should I do?”

Her seminary teacher let her down. “I think you should wear heels,” she said. “They shouldn’t be stiletto, or flashy, but you have to be appropriate”.

By not talking about it too much, and staying on the simpler side of whatever is the norm in your parent’s world, you’ll retain your moral clarity and priorities.

Torah is the Beste Sechoirah

My brother and sister-in-law support a few kids in kollel in Eretz Yisrael. I was shocked when I visited and saw my niece really struggling — thinking twice before turning on the heat, and rationing the chicken. I let my brother know what I’d seen and expressed understanding that he must have quite a financial burden. He bluntly told me that business was booming, and he could easily give his children more. He just feels like it’s wrong to spoil them, and if they’re living in kollel, they should live a kollel lifestyle. He made it sound holy, but to me it seems not just miserly, but badly misguided.

It doesn’t surprise me when successful business men are generous supporters of Torah. These are people who know a good deal when they see one, and by far the best return on your dollar is supporting Torah.

One could posit that people have every right to spend their money as they please. This isn’t actually true. We’re all required to allocate our money according to a halachic hierarchy of values, with support of Torah the loftiest cause there is (see Shulchan Aruch 249:16, 251:9; Igros Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 1:144).

Our first financial obligation is to those closest to us, and the assistance needed is judged by the standard that the receiver is accustomed to. Therefore, as your niece was brought up in a wealthy home, it looks like there’s a good case to expect your brother to ease their burden a lot more than he is currently.

I know a couple who was treated by their parents to two weeks in a posh hotel but walked home because they didn’t have enough money for the bus. It’s strange.

Helping Torah scholars live comfortably is a privilege.

On their end, yungeleit and their families exemplify higher moral values that should reflect in reasonable standards of gashmiyus.

Taking money under any circumstances is uncomfortable, and much more so from someone who isn’t happy about giving it. So a word to the noble young women who dream of establishing their homes with partners who will learn Torah full-time. Parnassah is not your job, and classically men support their families financially. But you want more, you want to count yourself among the ranks of bnei Torah. It can also be well argued that in these morally challenging times, a Jewish family needs that something more.

You may feel that the easiest way is to be supported by your parents. If your parents want to help out, that’s very special. But it may be smart if that’s not the full sum of your plan.

Trying to be as financially independent as possible is less comfortable, but pays higher happiness dividends. There’s less looking over your shoulder, worried about disapproval for purchases you make. There’s more autonomy, less ability for others to interfere in your decisions. You’ll find it more natural to move out of your child relationship with your parents, and find expression as an independent adult. And my unofficial, unscientific survey tells me that, on average, your husband will be able to shteig better and longer

Socially Off

We want to live within a “normal” budget, but it seems like a normal budget in town, enough to cover tuition, mortgage, bills, and food — forget simchahs, restaurants, vacations, and extras — is a number well into the six digits. Of course people get swept up in the rat race!

We all know that our income is decided on Rosh Hashanah (Beitzah 16a), but let’s note Rashi who tells us the importance of not overspending with the funds Hashem gives us because we don’t get more. We all get what we need for whatever we’re going to accomplish this year. Think Chanukah: We take the oil we’ve been given and use it to the best of our ability, and know it may fall short in painful areas, but sometimes we’ll see it surprisingly keep burning, b’chesed HaBorei.

There’s major overuse of the word “normal”: normal sheitel, normal bar mitzvah, normal car. Is “normal” what you like or what everyone else does? Does it indicate what’s done in the top 15 percent? Middle 70 percent? Do you mean normal in Boro Park between 13th and 18th, or in the tens? Forest Park or across the Lakewood lake? Baltimore or Silver Spring?

Normal sounds great, but has boundaries that are hard to ascertain and easy to manipulate, and it’s often thrown around to justify abnormal spending. Replacing “normal” with “reasonable” or “appropriate” is a lot more grounding.

Why people get swept up in the rat race has numerous causes, but we can try and preempt a few of them.

The biggie is social pressure. We bend a little backwards to accommodate and humor our kids so they can fit in, because they’re young and don’t have the resiliency of adults. But we’re grown up and it’s time to resist the urge to get stuff just because all the other kids have it.

It’s important to keep your eyes on your goals, both transcendent and financial. When spending, ask: “Does this purchase take me where I want to get to and give me anything beyond the immediate?”

What would happen if we committed to only spending what we had? You don’t “fall” into debt unless you don’t look where you’re going. Being aware of your finances goes far toward curbing spending.

We Jews have a long and complicated history of making peace between our lifestyle and our means.

A Jew and a gentile met at the lottery office, where they were splitting a $10 million win.

“I’m retiring,” said the gentile to the Jew, “and buying myself a condo with a yacht off the Caribbean. What about you?”

“I’ll pay off debts,” said Shmiel

“And the rest?”

“The other debts will have to wait.”

It would be funny except that debt is so not funny.

We all know that frum living is expensive. That’s no excuse to make it even more challenging. While some expenditures aren’t fully in our control, there are plenty that are. The old Jewish adage about never skimping on food is understandable in the context of our history but you don’t need Wagyu steaks. Your family may need a change of scenery, but there are many ways to vacation.

Life is full of choices, and when you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to another. Some readers didn’t like my suggestion of moving to a less expensive neighborhood. Okay, then you’ve decided to say yes to a heftier in-town mortgage, or to sitting on a property with higher equity, plus all the accompanying higher lifestyle demands — what are you willing to give up for that privilege?

A korban oleh v’yored is a sliding-scale sacrifice for which wealthy people bring an animal, middle class people bring a bird, and the poor bring a flour offering. What if someone wants to splurge and give beyond their means? Their offering is invalid! The Torah has compassion on someone who’d be spending more money than he can afford (Chinuch 123). If only we had that compassion on ourselves and the people we love.

We Don’t Pay For Shabbos

How does the concept of Hashem covering Shabbos and Yom Tov expenses translate for a family living on a tight budget? How much is correct to spend in honor of Shabbos?

If you borrow for Shabbos, HaKadosh Boruch Hu promises to carry the debt. It also says that rather than take from others or borrow money, one should eat weekday food on Shabbos. How to reconcile these two opposing statements of Chazal?

A number of years ago, the fine people at Mesila asked this question to Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman. Both gedolim set down practical policy. For the sake of Shabbos, there’s room to stretch your financial abilities, and that’s what Jews have always done, but it’s not carte blanche. Make sure Shabbos is nice, but watch out for the excessive, they concurred. Exorbitant charcuterie boards and Johnie Walker Blue? Don’t kid yourself by calling everything you want kavod Shabbos, because if Shabbos doesn’t need it, it’s not on The Tab.

C’mon And Ride the Train

How much hishtadlus is required? My husband lost his job and had been hunting for a new one for several months. He recently got offered a solid job with an excellent starting salary — but it requires him to be away from home several times a year. I have small children, and it’s tough for me to manage alone. How much am I meant to stretch in the name of hishtadlus? At what point can we turn down a good job we desperately need because it feels like “too much”?

Your specific question has many details and conditions that make it dissimilar from anyone else’s and therefore needs a personal conversation with daas Torah.

Figuring out how much effort to put into our endeavors, while simultaneously remaining aware that everything comes from Above, demands constant assessment. The formula is: With this amount of human input, would the desired outcome make sense in regular terms or rate as a miracle? Everything is in G-d’s hands, but you have to play your part, investing reasonable and responsible effort.

If you want to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway, you’ll need to get to the station, swipe your metrocard, and board the right train. Sitting at home and hoping to somehow get to your destination would be trying to circumvent nature and is therefore insufficient. Conversely, the Chofetz Chaim compared extra hishtadlus to pushing the train car from the inside once you’re on. Once you’ve opened a window for G-d to send success that looks natural, you can save any additional strength for other constructive endeavors.

That’s not to say we don’t experience miracles, we’re just not allowed to rely on them. Every Jewish home is replete with yeshuos, and the fabric of Jewish existence is woven from supernatural cloth. There is a Jewish specific art form to balancing the practical with the wondrous.

Dollars and Your Darlings

The message we get is that it’s not a privilege to send your kids to camp — you must send them. If everyone in their class has the newest XYZ, don’t be the only one to take a stand. On the one hand we want to have principles; on the other hand, we don’t want our kids to be social pariahs.

Needs and Wants

“Materialism” is defined as “the belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life,” with synonyms being “avariciousness,” “gluttony,” “greediness,” and “money-grubbing.” Although the word is thrown around a lot, its connotations are ones any decent person should be allergic to.

Messages of austerity, though, are ineffective and therefore irrelevant. So let’s talk non-excess, meaningful consumption, and financial responsibility. These values can and should be applied across generations.

As a matter of fact, as they’re headed off to camp, this might be an opportune time to catch some learning moments. Here are some ideas. Rather than put their camp nosh in your grocery order, give them a budget. Together, make a reasonable bare basic list. Figure out the approximate cost, give them 30 percent more, and send them to the grocery. If the kid is nine, hang out and supervise. If the kid is old enough, give him full autonomy.

The idea is that they’ll have everything they need and some of what they want, but they’ll have to prioritize to figure out what that is. Don’t forget to help them split the cache into four or eight, so they’ll have their stash for each week.

Don’t stop with munchies. Going camp shopping for clothing? Again, make a list together, then pad it nicely for extras. If your daughter is 16, give her a wad of cash and send her on her way, making clear that this is it. If you like to shop together, great, but the decision-making is hers. When she sees all that money, she’ll be sure she can buy the moon, but she’ll get a lot smarter real quick. If the child is younger, start small with, say, socks or hair accessories.

Sure Thing!

Freely providing for kids’ physical and emotional needs cannot be overemphasized. Additionally, gifts make a child feel valued. But when we throw too much stuff at our kids, we’re cheating them out of the harder, sweeter experience of earning and accomplishing. It also leads to confused values. That doesn’t justify the harshness of an unnecessary “no” and there are many flavors to “yes.”

“Yes, you can have that for afikomen.” “Yes, you can buy that with the birthday money from Bubby.” “Yes, do you want that to be a prize for washing the dishes every night?” “Yes, but would you rather that or X, that you also wanted.” Or even, “Yes, but not now.” These are all options.

“Yes, I’m happy to pay for half” is particularly telling, because if they say, “Give up money for that?! No way!” it may not be that important to them.

In assessing how forthcoming you should be, establish reasonability: Assess how widespread this is among the chevreh, how often you’ve recently not allowed things, how expensive or objectively extraneous it is, how much it means to this specific child, and if it runs counter to values your family has.

Look for ways to teach your child social responsibility and compassion. A child can understand that raising the ante and flaunting what you have is in poor taste. If half the bar mitzvah boys have it, it’s a consideration. If fewer do, we don’t want a part in the stress caused to others by “even [insert your kid’s name here]’s mother lets.”

And when other kids do have something special, the most important middah in our chinuch arsenal is introduced: fargining, the age-old treasured Jewish value of not begrudging, but delighting in what our fellow Jews have, even when we lack.

That’s Life

When we let our kids spend, but with limits, we teach them autonomy within boundaries. Yiddishkeit is structured this way. We choose what to eat, but within the boundaries of kosher, for example.

Also, as kids experience solutions that aren’t all or nothing, they’re learning nuanced realities.

Finally, “opportunity cost” states that when choosing one option, you reject others. How sad if these lessons begin when applying to yeshivah, starting shidduchim, or other crucial junctures. How opportune if we train kids early on to make and live with real choices bolstered by their parents’ emotional support and approval.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 731)

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