How Much Money Does a Frum Family Need?

Facing An Expensive Reality

Our grandparents grew up very quickly. Faced with war, hunger, illnesses, and forced emigration (lo aleinu) at young ages, they were forced to mature to survive. Today most of us grow up very slowly, and many people remain sheltered from the realities of life until their 20s, 30s, or even longer. Whether soon after marriage, when leaving kollel, or after they start paying tuitions, those accustomed to living on their parents’ largesse are often shocked to learn that everything costs money (“$80 in tolls and gas to attend a wedding?!”… “$100 for basic toiletries?!”… “$250 for one Yom Tov seudah?!”… “The tuition bill is $50,000?!”). Once the realities of the cost of living hit home, most frum couples end up asking themselves at some point: “It costs how much to live?!”

Four Jews, Four Budgets

Putting a specific number on a frum family’s cost of living would be as silly as a clothing store carrying just one suit. Household finance is so personal, reflecting each person’s own needs, preferences, habits, and tastes. The most obvious factor that affects differences in costs is the number of people being fed, clothed, and schooled—all else being equal, a larger family requires more money. But household size is just one small part of the expense equation. 

While volunteering for Mesila a while back, within a short time frame, I met four families, each with four children, whose budgets ran the gamut from $65,000 to $180,000 a year. Ironically, those with lower incomes were doing better financially and were putting money away each month. This disparity was the result of a combination of differing circumstances, spending habits, and the drastic effects of the tax and government program brackets. Just as everyone needs to choose a wardrobe that works for them, every household budget needs to be custom-tailored. As examples, consider the vast spectrum of cost in these expense categories, calculated for a family of six:

Housing: $20,000–$90,000+

A six-person household may be living in a rented three-bedroom basement ($1,800 monthly), a modest house rental ($3,000), a purchased functional $400,000 home ($4,500), or a $1,500,000 dream house ($8,000). Also, deciding on a neighborhood to live in is a very personal choice that can make a huge difference in the family’s budget. The variation between cities is even more stark… (Boro Park vs. Staten Island vs. Monsey etc). While of course there are benefits to purchasing a large, beautiful home in a great area, you would need enough income to cover the significant added monthly expense.

Food: $20,000–$40,000+

It seems petty to some people to talk about the cost of food because each meal is just a few dollars. But considering that a family of six consumes over 1,000 meals a year (not including Shabbos and Yom Tov), the average price per meal can swing a family’s annual food budget by many thousands of dollars. Is breakfast a bowl of cereal and milk ($1-$2) or a sandwich and latte at a café ($15–$20)? Is supper homemade ($5-$6 a serving), prepared takeout ($10–$20), or eating out ($20–$30+)? Food expense is a typical example of prutah prutah mitztarefes, small consistent expenditures which add up to significant sums, and each family’s number can be very different.

Bar Mitzvah: $2,000–$25,000+

My maternal zeide who came from a wealthy family near Munkatch told us that his bar mitzvah was so large, they even had to borrow a table from the neighbors! Though no one is making a shtetl event today, the range of costs for simchos is still extensive. A bar mitzvah celebration may mean a homemade seudah and kiddush plus a new hat and suit for the bar mitzvah bachur ($2,000 +tefillin), a catered seudah with a dessert reception plus a kiddush in a shul’s hall ($5,000–$10,000) or even the “chasunah plus Shabbos sheva brachos” style bar mitzvah ($25,000+).

Make Up Your Own Answer

None of the above examples are particularly extreme in today’s frum society. Wherever you stand on the spending spectrum, you probably have a close friend or relative on the completely opposite end. Especially with today’s hectic and complicated lifestyles, everyone has items they feel are absolutely necessary for which no cost should be spared, whether it’s better housing, cleaning help, takeout, vacations, etc. There is no right or wrong when it comes to budgeting except that people must spend less than they earn. And there can be no one answer to how much should be spent in any category; every family has to work that out for themselves. While I wish I could be more specific, the only definite about today’s frum cost of living is that it’s very high!

Just by the Way: Which Parnassah is it?

The Gemara (Beitzah 16a) says that all parnassah (except for expenses of Shabbos, Yom Tov, and schar limud) is set on Rosh Hashanah. Some people figure that since Hashem provides everyone’s needs, they can spend as they see fit and have bitachon that everything will work out. Rashi, however, explains the Gemara’s message as exactly the opposite, saying that since there is only a preset amount of parnassah available annually, people need to make sure not to overspend and finish their allotment before the year’s end. Hashem is mefarnes everything and everyone, but this may mean the simple parnassah of Munkatch 1930, not the extravagance of USA 2023!

Want to dig deeper?

Try these related articles

The Impossibility of a Frum Family’s Finances

Frumflation: Why Frum Inflation is So High

Finances: Try, But Not Too Hard


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