Thinking it Through

How a little careful planning can save you from disaster

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: why does it say (Bamidbar 21:27) “Therefore, the moshlim say…” – “the moshlim”, refers to those who control their inclinations. “Come to Cheshvon” – come and make a worldly accounting; the cost of a mitzva (weighed against) its benefits, the benefits of a sin against its cost (Bava Basra 78b)

The cost of a mitzva – the income lost because of the time spent involved in a mitzva, or, if he gave charity, the reduced amount of money available to him (should be calculated against) the enormous reward (for the mitzva awaiting him) in the future. (Rashi)

While this chapter isn’t about mitzvos and avairos as such, the same need to plan really does apply in one form or another to all areas of our lives. The Mesilas Yesharim1 used the accounting practices employed universally by successful businesses to illustrate the kind of care we must take in making spiritual decisions…one simply can’t overstate the importance of that observation. But let’s not ignore his example: any business that fails to regularly and thoroughly analyze its inventory, accounts and cash flow is setting itself up for failure. Perhaps a normal family doesn’t need to be quite so aggressive about it, but nevertheless spending with no defined limits and no overall plan cannot end happily.

Life is far too complex to look for specific rules and formulas that work for everyone. Nevertheless I believe there might still be value in offering some general considerations…if only to inspire you to engage in more detailed and productive discussions of your own.

Let’s use the chasuna as an illustration. Until the fairly recent introduction of a number of creative and intelligent alternatives, the destructive extravagance of frum weddings seemed nearly unavoidable. Things certainly aren’t yet perfect, but they’ve probably come far enough that we can discuss the numbers without getting too upset. So, to get things going, here’s a side-by-side comparison of just some of the more noteworthy expenses.

In the “old days”, the combination vort/l’chayim/part could easily run up a total bill of $3,000 – remember, these things often used to take place in rented halls supported by caterers! Ceremonial gifts2 between the chasan and kallah could run $10,000 or more. Moving to preparations for the actual chasuna, families choosing to dress their women and girls in special matching gowns would probably expect to spend another $2,000 (with little hope of ever using them again). Feeding the 400 guests coming to the event would, at $100/plate, cost $40,000. Thus, the total direct costs incurred by the two celebrating families would land in the $55,000 range.

But that’s not the only hit Jews3 will feel (remember, we’re all in this together). The guests will also face their own expenses. Getting 400 people from their homes to the hall could easily cost another, say, $27,0004 The female guests will need special outfits, totaling another $8,000.5 Not every invited couple will be leaving their babies at home, but those who do will likely need babysitters (or, alternatively, a visit from their local Child Protection Agency). Bearing in mind those who don’t need, let’s say that the average babysitting cost is $15, which would translate to yet another $3,000. Finally, one or two catered sheva brachos alongside five or so in-house affairs could realistically set us back another $6,000.

Total indirect expenses? $44,000.

What, therefore, will a few hours of sweaty dancing and some chicken cost everyone involved? $99,000.

Now let’s see how it could be done.

A pre-wedding party to introduce the new couple? Serving bakery-bought cake and danishes in the parents’ home shouldn’t go for more than $75. Meaningful and evocative gifts to draw the young couple together? $1,000. Special outfits and suits for those family members who don’t already have something nice to wear at a chasuna? $1,000. Food? How about 100 sit-down guests at $25/plate (we all know now that this can be done)? $2,500.6

Transportation (for ¼ the number of guests)? $6,750. Clothes? $1,000.7 Babysitting? $750. Sheva brachos? $1,000.8

The grand total for one “wedding-lite”? $13,075.

I’m sure you’ve already noted that the total cost difference between the “old standard” and “simple” models is $85,925. And that doesn’t even take into account the lifetime interest costs for the proportion of those expenses that are borrowed. Let’s assume that our two families borrowed $50,000 between them to cover the costs of a “normal” chasuna and manage to pay off that amount using regular payments over twenty years. Assuming they’re given an interest rate of 5%, their chasuna will have cost them an extra $29,194.69 just in interest.

All that’s for just one chasuna.

Now let’s assume that there are around 1500 frum weddings in North America each year. The total achievable savings (not including interest on loans) that could easily be realized each and every year would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $128,887,500.00 That’s one hundred and twenty eight million dollars in absolute clear savings that are just waiting to be made.

No more tuition crisis.9

I am not blind to the fact that the efficiencies I’ve mentioned are unthinkable for many people. We all have invisible “lines in the sand” which we simply can’t imagine ourselves crossing. Let me share my own personal example:

I understand that central air conditioning is a luxury whose absence was survived by countless generations of our ancestors. Even I managed to get through my childhood without it. I also know that, besides annual electricity charges well above $1,000.00/year, replacing a failed unit would cost thousands more. That’s money I really shouldn’t be spending given my current financial position. Yet, if the system were to go down tomorrow, I am fairly sure that I would be on the phone to an HVAC contractor within minutes and, some days later, my secured line of credit would feel the pain.

Can I rationalize this behavior? Not convincingly. Is this going to make the difference between fiscal stability and catastrophe? Probably not on its own. But if I make enough similar decisions – and along the way convert enough similar luxuries into necessities – then I’m definitely circling the drain.

So perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect people to easily shed all their irrational “gotta haves”. But there is something we can do to limit the damage. Think about the unthinkable. Better yet, during serious conversations with your loved ones, articulate the unthinkable. Ask each other why, for instance, we actually need matching gowns at the coming chasuna? Is it fear of social consequences? A desire for just the “right look” for the photographs? A sense of specialness that would otherwise be missed? Visualize the chasuna without this detail. How would life be different six months or ten years later?

Now discuss the expense. Research and then write down precisely how much the gowns will cost (don’t just broadly estimate). Add the interest costs if this will be paid for using credit.10 On the other side of the paper (or spreadsheet), list other things for which that money could be used (overdue tuition payments, upcoming dental treatments, credit card payments etc.). Try to weigh the benefits of one against the costs of the other. Which side is more compelling?

This process is sometimes called a cost/benefit analysis. Its beauty is that it doesn’t require you to do anything at all; you can always simply ignore the results. But it transforms vague, shadowy impressions into measurable arguments for and against the various possible choices that you could make. It sometimes even reveals choices you never knew you had!

When you’ve done the analysis, you will have the tools you need to make the decision that is truly best for you and your family. Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll do what’s best, but at least you’ll have a better idea what’s at stake.

As you can well imagine, those of us living with limited wealth could easily make similar assessments in other areas. So, for instance, the higher costs of designer label clothes and other consumer products (rather than no-name items of similar quality), or of an overseas trip, or an expensive summer of camp, or regular weekly restaurant trips should be weighed against other demands on your money. It’s all about being objective and open minded.

But what about this commonly heard argument?

“If we really need something, why not just buy it and rely on God? Aren’t we supposed to have bitachon?”

Well first of all, you have to remember that bitachon doesn’t mean God will do whatever I want Him to (which would, after all, make you a god, wouldn’t it?), but that God can do whatever He wants. There’s quite a difference. Next, make sure that you really do need it: I certainly have no right to speak for God, but I can’t imagine He’s too interested in matching wedding gowns. And even if you’re planning a genuine mitzva activity, I’m unaware of any Torah source that guarantees Divine support for mitzvos (with the conditional exceptions of expenses for Shabbos, Yom Tov and children’s Torah education – see the chapter “Chazal’s Financial Planner”). So, no. Bitachon doesn’t seem to be the answer in this case.

Here are some more points to consider:

  • For most people, financial difficulties add emotional strain. The greater the burden, the more intense the stress. The more intense (and sustained) the stress, the more a person’s health is affected.11
  • I have heard from mental health professionals that deep and sustained financial troubles can often become catalysts for serious family discord. That is to say, a healthy and loving marriage can survive just about anything the world may throw at it, but existing weaknesses will likely be amplified by the destabilizing effects of financial anxiety. Bearing in mind the relative fragility of modern marriages, can we really afford to add any unnecessary risks?12
  • Unfortunate experience has shown us that excessive pursuit of luxuries can – and often does – lead to criminal activity. The Chofetz Chaim13 complains about people who “don’t properly consider how to manage their household expenses by avoiding excess. Many are the casualties of this evil behavior which, in the end, brings a man to theft and disgrace…Happy is he who stands firm, who pays no attention to these enticements and guides his household expenses in a calculated manner according to his wealth and not more.”

We must also consider the impact our fiscal decisions can have for others:

  • Some people haven’t got the moral strength to resist imitating new social trends they see developing around them. We therefore should be conscious of the unfortunate impact our choices can have on neighbors of more restricted means.
  • The non-Orthodox Jew who might consider adopting a Torah lifestyle is generally more idealistic and spiritually ambitious than average. Imagine how he might react to a Torah community that appears more focused on clothes and furniture than God…
  • Our own children come into this world with a natural wide-eyed enthusiasm for everything – and especially for kedusha. What effect is rampant materialism likely to have on that wholesome attitude?

1בביאור חלקי הזהירות

2I describe the engagement ring, expensive watches and jewelry and other gifts commonly exchanged between engaged couples as “ceremonial” for a reason. If someone wanted to offer their chasan or kallah some touching token of appreciation or growing feelings for each other, the gift would surely reflect some personal and special element of their relationship. The fact that everyone seems to offer items of essentially identical style and value suggests that it’s little more than slavish imitation of an empty ritual. I will add that I once heard from HaRav Yaakov Hirschman of Toronto that HaRav Yaakov Kaminetzky ruled that a woman should not make a שהחיינו upon receiving a gift of expensive jewelry because the expense is immaterial: as long as it is accompanied by warmth, she will feel just as good if she’s given flowers.

Diamonds, it is worth noting, have no real value of their own and, practically speaking, cannot be resold at anywhere near their retail purchase value. So what is it that makes them so expensive up front? It’s mostly due to monopolistic price controls combined with a marketing campaign that’s now been going on for more than a century under the guidance of De Beers – the international diamond cartel that disciplines and coordinates virtually all of the big players in the diamond business. By controlling supply – so that fewer diamonds appear to be available each year than really are – and skillfully manipulating consumers into thinking that they need diamonds of a certain size and quality, De Beers has successfully created a monstrous market for an item that’s really quite useless.

And, by willingly going along with it, we make ourselves into victims.

But isn’t it a venerable minhag to give one’s kallah a diamond? Nonsense. Until 1870 only a few pounds of the stones were harvested each year, making them pretty much a toy for the exclusive enjoyment of the ultra-rich.

For an eye-opening discussion, see “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” from the February, 1982 edition of Atlantic Magazine (now available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/02/have-you-ever-tried-to-sell-a-diamond/4575/).

3It’s obvious that not all of this money is lost to the Jewish community at large. Caterers, jewelers, photographers etc., all stand to benefit and some will even redirect a portion of this money back into the community. Nevertheless, all of the costs we’ve described are permanently lost to the consumers themselves and this has its own consequences.

4I estimated guests’ transportation costs by assuming that one in eight would come from out of town (and some of those from overseas). Thus, 50 of the 400 would likely incur an average cost of $400 each. The remaining 350 guests could face various transportation costs like fuel and parking amounting to about $20 each.

5Of the 400 guests, 200 are likely to be of the female persuasion. Each of these will have purchased an outfit that could have cost $400 that might be worn for ten weddings. Hence, 200 x 40 = $8,000

6A Cordon Bleu-trained chef – a baal teshuva – who recently ate at our Shabbos table told us that the food for a full gourmet catered banquet shouldn’t cost more than $5/plate!

7The total costs of clothes for the lucky women who attend only simple weddings would not only be lower because there would be fewer guests, but each woman who was invited would actually spend less since she would likely be invited to 75% fewer weddings than her friends in more elaborate social groups.

8As rabbonim have recently observed, there is no halachic need for a young couple to be given sheva brachos for each day of their first week together. The obligation only exists if they happen to be at a meal that was arranged especially for them and there are ten men in attendance.

9Of course I realize that not all that money would end up being spent on tuition, but just playing with these numbers is thought-provoking enough to be worthwhile.

10www.mlcalc.com is an excellent on-line mortgage and loan calculator.

11Consider this – from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(biology):

“Chronic stress can significantly affect many of the body’s immune systems, as can an individual’s perceptions of, and reactions to, stress. The term psychoneuroimmunology is used to describe the interactions between the mental state, nervous and immune systems, and research on the interconnections of these systems. Immune system changes can create more vulnerability to infection, and have been observed to increase the potential for an outbreak of psoriasis for people with that skin disorder.

Chronic stress has also been shown to impair developmental growth in children by lowering the pituitary gland’s production of growth hormone, as in children associated with a home environment involving serious marital discord, alcoholism, or child abuse.

“Chronic stress is seen to affect parts of the brain where memories are processed through and stored. When people feel stressed, stress hormones get over-secreted, which affects the brain. This secretion is made up of glucocorticoids, also known as cortisol, which are steroid hormones that the adrenal gland releases.

Studies of female monkeys at Wake Forest University (2009) discovered that individuals suffering from higher stress have higher levels of visceral fat in their bodies. This suggests a possible cause-and-effect link between the two, wherein stress promotes the accumulation of visceral fat, which in turn causes hormonal and metabolic changes that contribute to heart disease and other health problems.”

12Needless to say, great care and sensitivity are required to peacefully negotiate those purchase items over which a husband and wife disagree. But that would take another book.

13Be’ur Halacha at the beginning of ch. 529

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