Friday, May 02, 2008

Living In One's Means: A Letter From the Yated

I don't usually barge into Sephardi Lady's territory, but this letter (titled "Strapped For Cash") in the Yated caught my attention.

(Note: Any spelling errors/typos are mine)

Dear Editor,

Is anyone out there surviving financially? I, for one, am not. Pesach itself set me back so seriously. In addition to the cost of making Yom Tov with the sky-high prices of Pesach food - and food in general, there were Afikoman presents to buy and Chol Hamoed trips to go on. This all made my already dire financial situation that much more disastrous.

Take eight kids to an amusement part on Chol Hamoed and you'll walk out having spent close to $200. For what? And if, chas veshalom we don't take our kids on a Chol Hamoed trip every single day, somehow we are lacking as parents. That's the feeling we get. So the day after the amusement park, we went to the Liberty Science Center. That, too, cost a veritable fortune. On the third day of Chol Hamoed, I said that instead of going on a trip, we would go buy Afikoman presents. Frankly, the Chol Hamoed trip would probably have been a bargain compared to the prices we paid at the toy store. On Erev Shabbos, the last day of Chol Hamoed, we took the kids bowling. Who would imagine that you would have to pay well over $100 for a family to play two games of knocking down some bowling pins?

It is unbelievable what is going on out there. The gas prices are absurd. The cost of food is absolutely ridiculous. The only thing in the grocery store that is reasonably priced is the Yated, but, last I checked, this newspaper is not edible.

Is there any end in sight to this recessions that we are in?

Feeling Hopeless

Here's my response:

Dear Feeling Hopeless,

Thank you for your letter. It is certainly true that there are many people struggling to make ends meet during these difficult financial times. Food prices have risen dramatically over the last year and people with large families and limited incomes are indeed feeling the pinch.

However, it seems to me that the people in your household are lacking two basic ideas:

1. There is a difference between items that are necessities (food) and things that are luxuries (Afikoman presents and Chol HaMoed trips).
2. There are plenty of things to do around around NYC that don't cost a "veritable fortune."

You start out your letter by stating that you were in dire financial straits even before Pesach. I'm certain that shopping for a family of ten (eight kids plus, presumably, two adults), Pesach is great strain on the budget. Of course, I don't know what you purchased, but I'm sure that you did your best to contain costs and yet, still came away with a huge food bill. I only have three kids, and yet Pesach food put a nice hole in our checking account -- I'm sure that with twice the number of people, you were hit at least twice as hard.

However, while no one can fault you for complaining about the spiraling costs of food, I think you can be taken to task on your failure to understand that Afikoman presents and Chol Hamoed trips are not necessities. As kids, many of us managed to get through childhood without going on trips everyday. There were years that, as a kid, my sister and I didn't have Afikoman presents simply because our mother didn't have the money. And yet, somehow, we managed to survive and grow into mature, productive adults. Trust me on this... your children will not be scarred for life if they don't go on a trip or don't get Afikoman presents.

In fact, I was discussing your letter with Eeees last night, and she brought something to my attention. Last year Pesach time was kind of tough for us financially. Baruch HaShem, we weren't in danger of going hungry, but we didn't have a lot of leftover cash either. As a result, the kids didn't get Afikoman presents. We did, however, take them on a day trip. One of my kids this year brought up to Eeees that they didn't get Afikoman presents last year. Wilma Fred turned to him her and said "but they took us on a trip. Shouldn't that count?" In other words, (at least some of) my kids have learned to appreciate what they have, rather than bemoaning the fact that they don't have everything.

However, all is not lost. Since you mentioned the Liberty Science Center, I am going to guess that you're in the New York area. In New York City, there are plenty of things to do that cost little or no money. Here are some suggestions for next Chol Hamoed.

1. Go to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on Tuesday. It's free. The other days aren't too expensive either.

2. Go to the Prosepct Park or Queens Zoos. Adult rates are $6, kids 3-12 are $2. Assuming that of your eight kids two are older than 12 and one is under 3, the total cost (excluding transportation) is $34. Not bad for a family of ten.

3. Go to the Bronx Zoo on Wednesday. Wednesday is pay-what-you-wish day. Go, give $50, and enjoy the day with the animals.

4. Gather up a family or two, pack picnic lunches, Frisbees, balls and gloves and go have a picnic lunch/outing in Central Park or Prospect Park. There is plenty of room for the kids to run around all day. Subway costs for 10 people round trip: $40 -- assuming that all kids pay full fare.

5. Go to the American Museum of Natural History. While the suggested donation is $15 per adult and $8.50 per kid (for a total of $98), this is, again, a *suggested* donation.

6. Take the kids to FAO Schwartz. Just don't buy anything!

7. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and spend the day in Battery Park.

8. Ride the Staten Island Ferry and see the new aquarium at the Staten Island end. You'll also get to see the Statue of Liberty close up. Best of all, it's free.

9. Visit the Sony Wonder Technology Lab. It's free!

10. Visit grandparents. They're likely to pay the kids!

There you go... ten suggestions -- and I'm sure that there are plenty of other low/no cost things to do around the city that I've missed. The point is that you don't have to spend a fortune on trips for Chol Hamoed. If you like, go on one "expensive" trips and make the rest cheaper trips.

Listen, I understand that we all want to seem like "good parents" who will splurge for our children whenever possible. But sometimes, it's just not possible. If going on trips is going to completely blow your budget so that you won't be able to pay the real bills, then you have to be strong and just tell your kids no. You have to realize exactly what is a necessity and what is a luxury, and understand that Afikoman presents and expensive trips fall into the latter category and not the former.

Here's a bit of unsolicited parenting advice: Not taking your kids on a trip every day of Chol Hamoed will not make you seem "lacking as parents." On the contrary, by making an unpopular decision (and explaining *why* you're making it), you will be doing your children a far greater service - teaching them that one has to be responsible, set priorities where they belong (i.e. necessities first and then luxuries) and live within their means. Teaching them that lesson will remain with them and serve them well throughout life, long after the memories of the "missed trip" are faded and gone. Instilling this lesson in them will show that you are indeed not lacking as a parent, but a parent who teaches his/her children the lessons that they need to live.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Your blog is amazing.

G said...

The Orthonomics blog also has a post on this.

I say to you the same I said over there.
Seriously, send in this repsonse to the Yated.

BrooklynWolf said...

I hadn't seen SL's post (although I knew this was her "turf.").

I'd send it in except that doing so would probably compromise my anonymity.

The wolf

G said...

"In my day, we didn't have Afikoman presents for toys. We got rusty nails and big bags of broken glass! That's the way it was, and we liked it!...We loved it!"

Anonymous said...

Well written Mr. Wolf!
BTW..just to set the record straight, it was Wilma saying they didn't receive any afikomen presents last year and Fred (her oldest bro) responding that the trips should count as a present.

SaraK said...

You REALLY should send this in to the Yated. It's excellent. And in my day, the Afikomen present (if any) was a toy or game for all the kids to share.

Just Passing Through said...

Bronx Zoo was a bad choice. I hear that they had to close the doors on Wednesday as they were way above capacity! lol

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the issue was that the parents felt compelled to do these things because the neighbors do them. I know of people who have gotten into severe financial difficulty because they wanted to keep up with others in the community with fewer resources.

Anonymous said...

Your response is impressive! You made the necessary points and more, all while being polite and helpful to the letter writer. My first thoughts were of responding angrily about my not being able to even afford Pesach food -- I cried in the middle of the kosher store -- and derogatorily about the stupidity of equating food with expensive presents and day trips. Yasher koach to you for not only your well-crafted response but for your example. I would add that along with your suggestions of frugal and enjoyable day trips, the most valuable thing, far more than going to an exciting amusement park, is good attention from parents. For instance, while reading the suggestion for the picnic in Central Park, I pictured the family learning something new about Hilchos Pesach or being told a Pesach story. Also, perhaps Yated would not require you to break your anonymity but instead would accept your submission as from "Brooklyn Wolf" with your e-mail address and your web address. Oops -- candlelighting! Shabbat Shalom!

Lion of Zion said...

"Go, give $50, and enjoy the day with the animals."

nobody pays

regarding nos. 7 + 8: i walked the bridges a few times last summer with my son and hope to do it again this year. the complete route is to cross the brooklyn bridge, walk to the ferry, ride across and back lunch in that little park and then walk back across the manhattan bridge. i posted about it here


Anonymous said...

I think the letter to the Yated was facecious.

ProfK said...

I agree with your well crafted response to the letter except for this statement you made: "I understand that we all want to seem like "good parents" who will splurge for our children whenever possible."

Imho, "good parents" don't splurge for their children whenever possible, not if they want to raise responsible adults and to act like responsible adults themselves. Splurging brings to mind excess. How many toys are "enough"? How many trips are "enough"? You don't treat as special that which rains down upon you in a deluge. If one thing is good, are 10 things really better? Ever watch a young child in an overloaded playroom? They still seem to pick one toy and play with it almost exclusively.

Tip for excursions in NYC--go to The city database is searchable for museums, parks, attractions and gives all the information for all areas of the city.

LittleBirdies said...

As a kid was got small presents for afikoman.
Both my parents worked, so we had to entertain ourselves. Once in a while they'd take a day off and we'd go to a park for games and a picnic or go hiking on park trails.

Anonymous said...

Other fun activities 1.trail the schnorers and meshulachim to Teaneck 2. Shopping Spree: see how much shmura matza has gone down in price since the sdarim and stock up for next year 3.Gather outside and see who can come up with chumras no one else has thought of yet 4. arrange a scavenger hunt for non-edibles with hashgachos on them

Chaim said...

Wolf...I read your blog form time to time...I am VERY worried about the state of the economy and what it will mean in the Orthodox Community.

I started two groups to help try and stimulate biz between orthodox jews: The Frum Network, on Yahoo and on LinkedIn

Someone mentioned this idea...I'd like to make it happen...

A subscriber sent me the idea for a Frum Network meeting in New York this summer.
The meeting would include Frum Network members on this Yahoo group AND
the LinkedIn Frum Network

I like the idea. It can be a GREAT opportunity for Networking and
developing business relationships. It would take a LOT of volunteer
time and effort to pull it off.

If you are interested in such an idea, please post that you would find
such an event beneficial AND give some ideas as to what form the event
should take. I can see everything from a Yankees/Mets Baseball game to
a barbeque to a hotel ballroom with company tables.


Chaim Shapiro

Maya Resnikoff said...

I'm a little lost by the whole Afikoman presents- growing up not so very long ago in a non-observant family, we got a dollar if we looked and the kid who found it got $5- even with 8 kids, that oughtn't break the bank... And with 8 kids, by the time you're old enough to scoff at a dollar, maybe you should be letting your little siblings do the looking instead... Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

We are also a family of 8 kids. Due to the importance of paying the bills, we generally minimize spending all the time, including Chol Hamoed.

The big trip this year was to a go-carting place where we spent a total of $40 for each kid to ride twice. We also went Yom Tov gift shopping (as we do Succos and Pesach) with strict spending limits: $20 for kids > 11, $15 for 8-11 and something small for the littler ones. I think we spent less than $100 on gifts all told.

When we related this story from the Yated to some of the children last night, they said we were fortunate. Why? Because we don't have to worry about paying the bills like this person now does!

Yes most of the neighbors spend more, many spending much more. But these are the standards we set all year round and Y"T is no exception. The kids are used to it.

As the Rambam would have said: spending in moderation is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is no requirement that we spend outside our means for these non-essentials realted to our chaggim.

however, the thing that has put me isto a tremendous financial bind is not the high price of Yom Tov foods or Chol Hamoed activities, but rather, Yeshiva Tuition.

Not to go on Chol Hamoed trips is easy. What do I do about my tuitions bills, amounting in the tends of thousands each year?

Orthonomics said...

Hey Wolf-I missed your post earlier, but want you to know that you can step into "my" territory whenever you want. The erosion of financial health in the frum community may well spell disaster. The more people spreading the message, the better.

And thanks for the great tips. Next time we have to be in NY, I plan to implement some of your free to low cost idea! And you should feel like a "good parent" for doing the right thing and teaching your children gratitude, limits, living reasonably, etc. I second ProfK's comments (another blogger who has "invaded" my space. Thank you ProfK and the Wolf. Keep encroaching!)