Question: What is the meaning of the Talmudic teaching, “Whoever engages in construction becomes poor”?
Answer: The Gemara (Yevamot 63a) states: “Rav Papa said: Seal and do not plaster, plaster and do not build, for whoever engages in construction becomes poor.”
The meaning of the first statement is that if one finds anything needing repair in one’s home, such as a hole in a wall, it is better to seal the hole immediately as opposed to widening the hole in order to repair it in a way which will eventually make it look nicer.
Regarding the second statement, “Plaster and do not build,” this means that if one wishes that the wall look nicer in any case, it is better to renovate it as one wishes as opposed to knocking it down and rebuilding it in a more appealing matter. This is because “whoever engages in construction becomes poor,” i.e. almost anyone who has renovations and construction done becomes poor from the monetary loss one incurs as a result.
The Sefer Peleh Yo’etz (Chapter entitled “Building”) explains this further and writes that regarding construction expenses, many times one intends to spend only one-hundred thousand dollars, however, one ends up sending two-hundred thousand. Thus, anyone contemplating construction or remodeling should calculate whether or not one has the means to spend twice as much as he intended to. If one sees that one cannot, one must be very careful not to become impoverished as a result.
Indeed, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a) states: “One who pursues material pleasures will eventually become impoverished.” This means that people like to increase their assets and lead a materialistically lavish lifestyle and therefore, they invest in nice houses, nice cars, etc. Those who do so spend excessive amounts of money, get into tremendous debt, and eventually become impoverished.
This is especially true regarding construction and renovation/remodeling of houses in which case every small detail can cost large amounts of money and such a person, who may already be in debt, takes on more and more debt to cover all the expenses without even realizing the dire repercussions. On the other hand, righteous people, who realize that this world is not the primary one, do not invest that much in the aesthetics of their temporary abodes in this world, for their primary goal is the World to Come and are guaranteed not to spiral into such poverty, as the verse (Mishlei 12:7) states, “And the house of the righteous shall stand.”