$1,500 Eyeglass Frames: A Shortsighted Proposition?
I live in an affluent community, and although everyone has been affected to some extent by the economic repercussions of COVID-19, I have not noticed any marked reduction in people’s standards of living. The younger generation certainly does not seem to be feeling the pinch. Before Yom Tov, my teenaged daughter asked me to buy her a pair of designer eyeglass frames priced at $1,500. When I told her that I thought $1,500 was outrageous for a pair of glasses, she told me that her friends are wearing glasses that are even more costly. I could not argue with that – her friends have expensive taste, and their parents barely restrict their spending. Although I am not as well-to-do as some of the parents of these girls, I can afford to buy my daughter the glasses she wants. Should I buy them for her?
Your question is a perfect example of why Mesila is needed today. Forty years ago, or even twenty years ago, this question would not have existed, but today it is an important and relevant one. Like any chinuch question, this one depends on many factors, not all of which are spelled out in your letter. One factor to consider: How many of your daughter’s friends are wearing these designer glasses – 20%, 50%, or 90%? Another factor to consider: How is your overall relationship with your daughter? If you say “no” to her, will she be able to accept that without questioning your love and concern for her? And a third factor: Is your daughter going through a difficult time in her life?
If only a few of your daughter’s friends are wearing these glasses, if your relationship with her is generally good, and if she is not experiencing any particular difficulty right now, then there are a number of reasons why spending $1,500 on glasses might not be wise.
With $1,500, you can buy glasses for an entire family, or feed a poor family for several weeks. To spend that kind of money on glasses will either cause the glasses to take on inflated significance, or it will reduce the value of $1,500 in your daughter’s eyes. Neither of those options represents good chinuch.
We are not saying that people who have money should not spend it on themselves. Quite the contrary – if Hashem gave you money, you should appreciate and enjoy the gift He has given you. But even when spending money that you can afford to spend, you should not go overboard and lose all perspective of the value you are acquiring with your money. What value will you acquire by spending $1,500 on glasses that you would not acquire if you spent, $200, $400 or $500? Will your daughter see any better, look any better, or be more comfortable in these glasses? We doubt it. Chances are, the only added value you would be getting is the designer label. If so, why would you pay $1,500 to provide free advertising for a company in Paris, Milan, or New York whose merchandise is grossly overpriced?
Then there is the question of sensitivity to the tzibbur – i.e., your daughter’s peer group. There is already peer pressure among your daughter’s friends to wear designer eyeglasses, as evidenced by your daughter’s desire to buy them. If your daughter begins wearing these glasses, it will only reinforce the trend and intensify the peer pressure on those girls whose parents cannot afford to spend $1,500 on glasses. That may be insensitive, especially at a time when the entire world is experiencing an eis tzarah, a time of economic distress.
It is always prudent to avoid conspicuous consumption (see Biur Halachah, Hilchos Yom Tov 529:1), but during an eis tzarah there is even more reason to avoid it. Flaunting the fact that you are still able to spend money freely might make you vulnerable to ayin hara – and this is something that cannot be remedied by tying a red string to your daughter’s glasses.
Beyond these considerations, buying your daughter $1,500 glasses sets a dangerous precedent by introducing her to a level of spending that may be unsustainable. While she might be happy with the glasses now, she may be very unhappy in the future if she has to go back to the kind of glasses worn by the proletariat. And once she sees that it is acceptable to spend $1,500 on glasses, she will likely want to spend similar amounts of money on other items that she wants.
In the not-too-distant future, your daughter will be married, b’ezras Hashem, and who knows if her husband will be able to keep up the level of spending you have conditioned her to? For that matter, who knows if you will be able to maintain this level of spending? We are not wishing hardship on anyone, but if there is one lesson to learn from the current economic crisis it is that no one’s financial future is certain. Spending so much money on glasses is therefore shortsighted (pardon the pun) and might ultimately be a major disservice to your daughter.
Even if you were a billionaire and you could be reasonably certain that your daughter would always be able to afford $1,500 glasses, it would still be in your daughter’s best interests to experience the disappointment of not getting things she wants. The Steipler Gaon said that the reason that so many people today are unhappy and depressed is because they never lacked anything when they were growing up, so they never developed coping skills to deal with disappointment. They therefore fall apart when they are confronted with life’s inevitable disappointments. Life’s disappointments can be much worse than not getting $1,500 glasses, and these disappointments often happen in areas of life where money is useless. You would not want your daughter to fall apart if she is not accepted to the seminary of her choice or if she is turned down during the shidduchim process, and the best way to prepare her for these possible disappointments is in the training ground of eyeglasses and other minor letdowns.
The higher people’s expectations are, the more likely they are to be disappointed when those expectations are not met. There is a danger, therefore, in indulging wants, whether our children’s or our own. Each time we say “yes” to a child’s want, we reinforce it and turn it into more of a need. Conversely, each time we deny our children something they want, we teach them to want less. But this is true only of wants, not of needs. Needs, if unmet, only become more intense and lead to feelings of deprivation. To illustrate: if a person is hungry and does not yield to the urge to eat, he will only become hungrier, because he has a real need for food. But if a person wants chocolate and does not give in to the urge, eventually his desire for chocolate will abate and it will become easier for him to resist the temptation.
Because needs tend to intensify with time and wants tend to abate, a good way to determine whether a child’s request represents a need or a want is to see what happens when you say no: is the child able to forget about the item after a few days, or does she continue asking for it incessantly? If your daughter needs the glasses – and it is possible that she does – then you should consider getting them for her, because otherwise, she will feel deprived and her craving for the glasses will intensify. But if she only wants the glasses, then her initial disappointment at not getting them will fade quickly, and she will be a stronger, happier person for the experience. Stronger, because she has learned how to handle disappointment, and happier, because her expectations have been lowered and it is therefore easier for her to be content. It is normal for children – and adults – to want things, especially things that their friends have.
Before dismissing your daughter’s request as outrageous or frivolous, it is important to understand why she wants the glasses and empathize with her desire. Once you understand why she wants them, you can look together for alternative ways to satisfy the hunger underlying her desire. That hunger may be for attention, for social acceptance, or for a boost to her self-image. If you sincerely try to understand your daughter’s desire for designer glasses, you may be pleasantly surprised to realize that “yes” and “no” are not your only two options. Between $1,500 glasses and nothing there is plenty of middle ground, plenty of room for flexibility. One possible idea would be for you to buy her something of lasting value – a piece of jewelry, perhaps – instead of spending the money on faddish eyeglasses. Another idea would be for her to shop around and try to find similar eyewear at a more reasonable price. There are many other ways to make both her and you happy – the key is to put yourself into a mindset of consideration, rather than opposition, and chances are that she will follow suit. If you are in such a mindset, then even if you decide not to buy her the glasses, you will be able to cushion the “no” with understanding, compassion and love so that she can accept it without anger or resentment.
In summary, we recommend that you carefully consider the pros and cons of buying your daughter the glasses, evaluate whether her request represents a need or a want, identify the hunger underlying the request, and look for a way to satisfy that hunger without compromising your values or your relationship. After you consider the general guidelines we have offered, we suggest that you consult with a chinuch expert to receive specific guidance for your situation. We wish you much hatzlachah.
“Who is wealthy? He who is content with his lot.” (Mishnah, Avos 4:1) Many people mistakenly think that to be wealthy, you need to have a lot – a lot of money, a lot of possessions, and a lot of property. But the Torah teaches us that if you are content with your lot, you are wealthy. Having more just makes you want even more, as the Midrash says, “One who has a hundred, wants two hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 3:1). A home where the atmosphere is one of contentment is a rich, happy, and healthy home.
Discontent is the archenemy of financial stability, for it leads people to want and need more and more and more. But no amount of material acquisition can drive away the feeling of discontent and bring a person lasting happiness. That is because the root of discontent is in the soul, which thirsts for spiritual fulfillment (Koheles Rabbah 6:6). “The soul cannot be filled,” King Solomon tells us (Koheles 6:7), for it does not accept the currency of the physical world. Money and earthly pleasures are like salt water to the parched soul; instead of quenching the soul’s discontent, they intensify its yearning for the true pleasure of closeness to G-d.
The understanding that it is not money or possessions that bring happiness can go a long way in helping you to exercise financial restraint and self-discipline. If you know that material acquisitions are but cheap substitutes for true fulfillment, you will find it much easier to stay within your budget and keep your finances under control.