Thursday, March 7, 2013

UPDATED: The Hidden Costs of Orthodoxy

Everyone agrees that living an orthodox life is expensive. However, it's more expensive than you imagine it will be. (Keep in mind this post does not take into account conversion costs.)

You know the regular expenses:
Keeping kosher is expensive
  • Start-up costs to turn your kitchen kosher by nearly tripling your kitchen supplies
  • Kosher meat
  • Kosher cheese (especially if you're cholov yisroel)
  • Not always having a generic brand available kosher
Raising kids is expensive
  • Private school tuition, especially when there isn't any competition in the area
  • Kosher-friendly daycare/babysitting
  • More clothes to get destroyed/outgrown and replaced: tzitzit and kippot in particular
  • Wedding costs for those children. Yes, you're probably going to have to save up more than a house downpayment.
High Holyday "tickets"
  • The laws of tzedakah are complex and depend on your individual circumstances. But that is an automatic deduction of your take-home income every year for the rest of your life.

But there are some costs you may not have thought about. 

  • You're generally restricted to areas with a higher cost of living. Even in small communities, the housing within walking distance of an orthodox synagogue is not going to be in the cheap part of town. 
  • You will likely have more children than you would have if you had remained secular. The lesser-discussed aspect of "Keeping Up with the Steins" is that there is more pressure to have larger families. While an only child is becoming the norm in the secular world (says the only child blogger), it is still relatively uncommon in the frum world. It's not unheard of, but people are going to assume you have an only child because of medical issues, not as a personal choice. So multiply your expected child costs from above by 2 or 3...or more. You'll get some discounts for multiple children (assuming you can get them accepted to the same school), but it's not a significant savings.
  • Holiday costs. You think about this, but rarely think about it. Buying matzah each year is always surprisingly expensive, even after I've done it for almost a decade. Your food costs in general will be much higher for every holiday and probably Shabbat as well. Travel, cleaning for Pesach, purchasing wine regularly, etc. The little things can add up significantly.
  • Job sacrifices. You may have to take a lower-paying or less prestigious job because of Shabbat restrictions. You may have to take a higher-paying job you don't like as much because you need to pay dayschool tuition. 
  • Vacation sacrifices. If you don't work for an organization that follows the Jewish calendar (or closes on Jewish holidays), you will use your "vacation" days for holidays. I personally know many people who use all their paid vacation days to cover holidays and still have to take personal, unpaid days to get all the holidays...and that doesn't include taking off for chol hamoed. And we all know how "vacation-like" holidays are, so good luck finding that relaxation intended to create a revitalized and refreshed employee. You may also be responsible for finding people to cover for you or even to pay for that replacement. On the other hand, if you work on the billable hour system, then only Gd can help you come the High Holydays. Don't lose your job.
  • Hidden dayschool costs. That "Annual Dinner" is several hundred dollars per plate, and it's not totally "voluntary." "Suggested donations" are rarely ever "voluntary" when the dayschool is involved. 
  • Aliyahs and honors in synagogue. Personally, I am very bothered by the concept of "auctioning" honors. I understand that this can generate a large amount of money for the synagogue, but the very concept makes me cringe. However, it's not just holiday honors that are paid for. You may be expected to make a donation for aliyahs. There may be a "suggested" donation amount for it, possibly even extra for getting mishaberachs. This is a good question to ask when interviewing a new shul. 
  • Social events. $15 for a synagogue dinner here, $40 for an event there, $75 for a shul fundraiser there. If your shul is like the ones I've attended, almost no "social" event will be free. If you can't afford to go to the shul social events, you will eventually feel isolated from the community (speaking from my experience in two communities).
  • Mikvah fees. After you're married, you could be "donating" $10-40 per month to the mikvah for its use. 
  • Buying books. I view this as primarily a start-up cost, but the "maintenance" costs of your library will certainly be higher than the average secular consumer. However, in my experience, the people who make this a major expense would have done so even if they were secular (though maybe not as costly in absolute terms). People like me would spend ridiculous amounts of time and money expanding their library even without Judaism, and the bibliophile nature of Judaism is usually a major draw of conversion to begin with!
  • Women's haircovering costs. If you're female, you've probably considered this cost. However, you have likely underestimated the maintenance costs. Even if you stick to the "cheap" haircoverings such as hats, berets, and tichels, you're going to need to "update" or replace items every few years. Sheitels are more complicated than I'm familiar with, but know this: they're expensive, and they don't last as long as you would hope. Or you lean too close to the stove and melt the cheap synthetic one. They'll need to be replaced every few years as well. The costs you're definitely not thinking about are dying sheitels, getting them cut, or getting them styled for special occasions. 
  • Clothing alterations. A commenter has suggested this, but I don't believe alterations are necessary to make clothing tznius. Also, this is a problem the conversion candidate should have considered from the time he or she became tznius. The only times I've found alterations to be necessary are with formal clothing, such as formalwear, and alterations would be necessary even in the secular world (though perhaps not quite as much). That's my 2 cents. If anyone knows of situations I'm not considering, please comment below.
  • Traveling around Shabbat. This is often more of an annoyance than a cost, but I don't have kids yet, and I could see how that could easily change once kids are involved. It's an annoyance that I can't go somewhere "just for Sunday," I need to plan it around Shabbat as well. And if I'm now going to be away for Shabbat, I need to find accommodations and meals. When you're more than one or two people, you likely won't be as comfortable asking to stay in people's homes, and thus may need to pay for a hotel. (Remember that you're limited to hotels that have alternatives to electronic keys!) Perhaps flights are more expensive if you fly to include the whole weekend, but I'm less knowledgeable about that. Driving costs should remain the same, though you still have the annoyance of your travel times being dictated for you. 
Can you think of any other non-obvious costs of the orthodox community?

Of course, almost all costs and "suggested donations" are negotiable. However, don't expect as much of a discount as you'd like, if any at all. Being middle class or below in the orthodox world practically guarantees a few slices of humble pie a year.


  1. Seforim, having to book hotels/travel around Shabbat. It's also not just raising kids that's expensive, but the pressure to have multiple kids that makes things even more expensive.

    1. She said that.

    2. In response to Anonymous #2, I hadn't at the time the commenter posted above. I incorporated those thoughts into the post, hence the post is "updated."

  2. Women's clothing & wigs or other head coverings plus costs of alterations to make clothes more modest are an unexpected expense.

    1. People who don't cover their hair spend quite a lot on hair care. If you cover your hair full time, you can probably skip the Japanese straightening and $150 haircuts, the highlighting and professional root touchups.

      Now, if you want to wear a perfect sheitel and have perfect looking hair when you're alone with your spouse, you're doubling your costs, but this is unnecessary (and probably a futile pursuit, anyway, since wearing a sheitel or even a hat full time is not conducive to gorgeous natural hair).

    2. Reply to Tesyaa: To be fair, that's not true for everyone. I've gone three years between haircuts before (in college), and even now only get my haircut about 3 times a year (yay long hair!). I also make a point to get affordable haircuts (I pay $35 in Manhattan), skip "styling" at the end, and have never colored or treated my hair. So for someone like me, this is more money than I've ever spent on my hair! But for someone like you've described, haircovering may actually be cheaper, and I know some women like that.

    3. The person that spends $35 every three years on a hair cut that becomes religious is probably NOT someone that is spending $5k on a sheitel and replacing it semi-annually...

      The person that spends thousands/year on their sheitel would likely still be spending thousands/year on their hair.

      The person that spends $35/three years on their hair would likely be spending $20 on cheap scarves/hats and not worrying too much.

      Now switching from a modest secular Jew ($35/three years on hair) to a appearance obsessed religious Jew ($2500/year on fake hair) is an expensive upgrade... but if you're making that change, you might want to re-think the "becoming religious" part, because you're clearly going in the wrong direction of living a modest G-d focused life.

    4. Miami, that's not necessarily true. Depending on what tradition you choose when you convert, you may *have* to be buying a sheitel (which is never cheap)... no matter how much you used to spend on your hair.

      I used to spend about $20 every 3 or 4 months on haircuts (I had short layered hair, but didn't care too much beyond it not being shaggy). DH & I chose to follow Chabad traditions when converting, which means full time sheitel wearing when leaving the house.

  3. My wife works in a day school (MO) and has never owned a sheitel. But she can wear hats, snoods, etc. at work.

    There are ways to spend a little less on food. We rarely eat beef (courtesy of my internist) and generally eat chicken only on Shabbat and Yom Tov. That's mostly because my wife prefers dairy / pareve, but it is also true that lentils. beans, even quinoa, are less costly than chicken or beef.

  4. All lifestyles have hidden costs. You can live frugally as an Orthodox Jew, aside from tuition, and for that, well, you can homeschool or make aliyah if you really don't want to blow all your money. True, you can't live as frugally as a very frugal person with no religious obligations, but for most people, it's not a binary choice like that. Most people don't live very, very frugal lifestyles. Non-Orthodox people go on vacations, go clubbing, eat out frequently, get their kids SAT tutors at $300 per hour. None of those is required by an Orthodox lifestyle.

    Yes - if you are the person who planned your whole life to "live poor", Orthodoxy is incredibly expensive. For everyone else, the money spent being Orthodox would likely be spent on other unnecessary goods and services.

    1. The local (public) high schools here, because of budget cuts, are charging a sports activity fee to be on the teams. The cost is around $2500/year for expensive sports, $1500/year for inexpensive sports. Most kids into sports play 2-3 sports/year, or around $6k for the year. In addition to that, if you want playing time, you have to go to sports camps over the summer, they're pretty damned expensive as well.

      A traveling debate team can set you back $5k/year + summer camps that you generally have to travel for (figure $5k-$6k for 3-4 weeks).

      I mean, could a secular family send to public school, do no enrichment activities, and have no religious costs? Absolutely.

      But pretty sure if that family found religion they'd be in a cheap apartment near the day school they want, eat frugally, send to cheap summer camps, and gets tons of scholarship.

      Being a Modern Orthodox (i.e. upper middle class) American Jew is extremely expensive... but being an Upper Middle Class Reform Jew is ALSO pretty expensive.

  5. though you still have the annoyance of your travel times being dictated for you.

    I almost missed this.

    I think someone choosing to become Jewish or observant would be able to live with the annoyance, wouldn't you? There are so many compensations, or so one would think.

    1. You can live with it, but it makes going to events, conferences, reunions, visiting family, etc, difficult. You're often in for the whole weekend or not at all, and that can be very annoying (especially when you don't want to be away from home that long!). You live with it, and it's worth it, but it's not something the average conversion candidate thinks much about until much later in the process. I have had to miss many events because they were too close to Shabbat and I couldn't find Shabbat accommodation or Shabbat-friendly hotels.

    2. That's not a cost of Orthodoxy, that's a cost of being a BT that keeps their ties to their secular life. The Orthodox families don't do these things, it's not part of their life. They don't have reunions, they visit family by driving and encamping in their family's home for Yom Tov.

      I bear those costs as well, but I don't pretend that they are a cost of Orthodoxy, they are a cost of "having it all."

    3. @Miami Al: Most people will not have all of those things, that was merely trying to capture several instances where the problem might arise.

      However, I do not equate keeping in contact with family and spending time with them with "keeping ties to their secular life." I think that is an unfair way to phrase it, and a very judgmental way to boot. Keeping in touch with your family is not "trying to have it all." I also don't understand your comments about visiting family and reunions, since every person I know, regardless of the number of kids, drives/flies to family and stays in their home. No different than any other frum family. However, our families rarely live down the street or in the same town, which is becoming increasingly common in the entire frum world. All that said, few families today have reunions. It was merely an example. But I did attend reunions when I was a child, and it was at a public park near the largest concentration of family, so it's not some exotic destination reunion that you may be envisioning.

    4. I'm not envisioning anything.

      I went to my high school reunion, took a lot of planning to be in a position to get there as soon as Shabbat was out, had sitter problems, all sorts of headaches. The idea of rushing out to something Saturday night was foreign to my FFB friends, if a Frum high school had a reunion, it would have been scheduled for Orthodox Jews.

      My FFB friends visit relatives for 10 days over Pesach or Sukkot, that's their reunion.

      So staying in touch with your non Frum family during non Yom Tov time is a challenge, but it's not a challenge of Orthodoxy, it's a challenge for Orthodox Jews that, like you and me, remain a part of non-Orthodox life.

  6. That “Annual Dinner” is nearly $100, and it’s not totally “voluntary.”


    1. I really thought this was a typo. Sometimes it's more like $1000.

  7. Ummm, That "Annual Dinner" is nearly $100."
    Not with the schools I know about. Lowest I saw was around $250.
    High schools? $1,000 or more.
    And it's not just tuition: registration fees, building fees, activity fees etc. There are many "hidden costs" in private schools (not just Yeshivot: I think it's common in the industry).

    1. It really depends for secular schools. I went to the best private high school in my city, and the "added fees" were uniforms, books, lab fees, and school trip fees. None of this mandatory dinner stuff, or "suggested donation". Sure, it was expected that if you could afford it, you would contribute to some extent. But throw you out (or not take your next kid) if you couldn't? That's nuts.

      On the other hand, the other main secular private school in town had a separate application for the parents (!) that was basically a series of questions asking you how much money you were going to give the school. My parents were horrified and told me that they didn't want me going there. Their academics were pretty lousy from what I could see, so it was hardly a loss (and they were farther from our house, too).

  8. You're gonna make me cry here, Kochava. It's okay, I always planned to be poor and a socially isolated hobbit. I'll have to find a rich husband...

  9. Would you say Orthodox Judaism inherently has to be a first world religion because of the associated costs? It seems that being a devout member of almost any other faith (not Scientology) can be done in even the poorest regions of the world?

    1. I believe orthodoxy can be done by the poor, but they'll feel emotionally downtrodden unless the rest of the community is equally poor. I think that's why it can survive in poor countries or communities. The problems come when there is a large wealth gap within the same community, because then every member of the community becomes slave to the idea of Keeping Up with the Steins (rich and poor alike). I think wealth differences made a big difference in the disintegration of Jewish communities in the old countries after the emancipation because it was easier to putter along with little when everyone else had just as little. But I'm no expert on that. ...And this is the part where people start calling me a pinko commie.

  10. I left orthodoxy not long ago, towards the end I had seen on r. Alan brills blog a post on the economics of orthodox life bchutz, and it came down to asking A FRACTION of 2% of the american population to be in the top 7% in earnings FOR THE NATION...the top 3% if they wanted to be Modox and comfortable (vacations, etc). It totally explained how dating was so hard. It feeds into young adults leaving, as well as the shallowness of so much of american modern orthodoxy; you simply HAVE to either make aliyah, or focus time and energy on fitting into the sanctioned "professional" molds and make large amounts of money, period. Its not 'Torah u Maddah', its torah u Parnasah. American Modox jewry should drop the facade of offering means of sanctifying different ways of life and admit to utter failure at its defining ideological conviction or seriously reboot. It did not have tobe this way, but it is. No more room for humanities, fostering educated and motivated modox educators, or even the sciences unless you can pull serious profit from it - of course that's not including the arts, or even the trades...even if you CAN make nice money in the trades, its not on the culturally 'sanctioned' list of realistic options for the great number of orthodox, even if generations ago, that is what you did to make a living. Its about culture, at heart and thats what needs to change and im not optimistic, nor do i think modoxy is realistic. I dont think many modox BELIEVE enough about what they invest their lives in to sustain themselves as a community outside of israel. I left in part precisely because i thought it was true, and so many others inwardly or quietly didn't believe in a communally sustaining fashion. Pierrefranz

  11. All of this is another good reason to live in Israel!

  12. More holidays = more time away from work. If you don't work for a Jewish organization, it means having to use up personal days, vacation days, arranging for coverage and/or simply not being able to bill as many hours.

    1. Good call! I didn't think about that as being a "price," but you're absolutely right. Will add.

  13. There are a lot of adverbs to the list of expenses: generally, likely, may, etc. Sure, all of these things are possible, but if a person is intelligent and on a budget, they'll work within their budget. Is it more expensive to be an Orthodox Jew? Undoubtedly. Being heavily involved in any religion is more expensive than not being a part of one. I wouldn't be surprised if Muslim blogs have posts very similar to this one; I'd be shocked if they didn't.

    I feel that many of the costs can be "worked around" to a large extent for those on a tighter budget.

  14. I feel a bit like a lot of this is very NYC/tri-state area based, and that all of this is not true for Orthodox Jews everywhere, even within the US. I grew up Orthodox and I got financial aid from my local day school and my parents never made voluntary contributions to the school or attended annual dinners. And I was treated fine and not kicked out.

    The work stuff is real and why I've chosen to work within the Jewish community, rather than a secular non-profit. (I am not cut out for the corporate world, regardless.)

    Yes, I grew up without a lot of money, wearing hand-me-downs, never taking vacations except to visit family members (and stay with them for free), going to secular municipal day camp (not Jewish sleepaway camp), etc. But, so what? I was given so much more in return! Facility with study of Jewish texts, an awareness of the value of both money and non-monetary things, Shabbat, multiple siblings, etc. Sure, we had an old rusted-out car and we took a lot of public transit and walked a lot. But--so what? The money that would have been spent on a second car or a non-rusted-out hulk of a first car was spent, instead, on day school and kosher food. (I grew up only eating meat on Shabbat, and otherwise eating a lot of

  15. Sorry, got cut off. Eating chicken only on Shabbat and red meat only on yom tov, and regular grocery items otherwise, including tuna casserole, pasta, etc. We ate out as a family once or twice a year, usually right before Pesach and sometimes if visiting grandparents took us out.

    Then again, never having known anything else might make it different. I mean, if I had grown up with more, I might find it harder to give it up for Orthodoxy.

  16. Kochava, just wanted to say, I get your point ;)

    So many people seem to be viewing your post as saying "Orthodox Judaism is just *toooo* expensive"

    What you're really saying (as anyone reading what your blog is about should get) is "oh hey, those of you thinking about converting/beginning the process -- these are things you need to take into consideration that you may not have thought of. Heads up! These are the big cost outputs."

  17. I was saying that some of those big costs don't have to be big costs. Some seem very dependent on where you choose to live and the kind of lifestyle you want to have, regardless. If you would be eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains anyway, and working in a nonprofit anyway, and not caring so much about money anyway, there are STILL large costs associated with Orthodoxy, but not nearly as many as listed here.