Ten years ago, we were getting married. I was still in college, with one parent living in another country and another living on another continent. My future husband was in medical school, technically on his own, with two frying pans and two plates. And a toaster. And an air-conditioner. If you lived in NY, you know how important it is to own a window unit.
We had a long engagement and no parental support. We were also getting married at the time Lechter's was going out of business. My college friends surprised us with going there and cleaning out their inventory, which meant that we (gasp) ended up with dishes and pots that we did not register for. Nevertheless, we were now proud owners of two sets of dishes, a set of pots and two sets of silverware.
Now, whenever I get an invitation to a bridal shower, it comes in with a discrete list of places the young couple registered at: Bed Bath and Beyond, Fortunoff's, Macy's. I usually start browsing online and, lo and behold! They are registered for a really expensive dish set. Well, being frum, two of them. The dishes look gorgeous, but I find it a bit funny: do you really want me to buy you one place setting? Are you planning on spending your own money to buy the other seven? Are you counting on family to buy you the rest? And let me tell you what happens after you get married...
If you live in a city and are still pretty young, chances are, you are renting a small apartment. If the city is NY, that becomes a really small apartment, with a really small kitchen. The first thing you will discover about your kitchen is that it is sorely lacking cabinet space. Most kitchens are not built to house two sets of dishes, so you end up compromising by having only a service for four on the low crammed shelf and the rest tucked in somewhere else. But if you decided to honor Shabbos by getting a third set of special china, now you have to figure out where to store that. Maybe you have a spare bedroom and it becomes the great graveyard of wedding gifts (all those over-sized bowls and platters and trifle bowls and serving pieces, in case you are making Shabbos for 16. But your apartment will not even fit 16.) Maybe you are now cramming in a sideboard into teeny living room, so you can store your Shabbos dishes in dignity. (If they are that expensive, they have to be treated with respect). Whichever way, you probably work it out to corral all your china and silverware and you spend hours hand-washing it all after Shabbos and putting it away.
And then you have a baby. Now, you are dealing with a severe lack of time, you do not have time to carefully wash and stack those fancy dishes. Either you switch to plastic and let your dishes gather dust, or you grumble how you need cleaning help or your spouse to pitch in.
And then your baby becomes a toddler. Toddlers like to experiment, and they do not know that mommy's expensive china is not the best way to check whether gravity really pulls everything down. Toddlers also get into cabinets and boxes and, to them, a plate is a plate, whether it was trucks or delicate flower motifs.
By now you probably chipped a few of your fancy dishes and broke some. You keep consoling yourself that as soon as your finances get better, you will order their replacements and secretly wonder why they are so expensive.
And then your toddler becomes a preschooler, eager to help set the table. Now you are really stuck: do you encourage independence and let him set the table, holding your breath and hoping that nothing gets dropped, or do you keep telling him how precious these dishes are, how careful he has to be with them, and, when he's a big boy, he might even have a real plate of his own?
And then the preschooler becomes a yeshiva bochur and the parents start to wonder why he has no desire to help set or clear the table....
In hindsight, I am so grateful for those simple Lechter dishes. I also was not able to fit two sets in, but I never had Shabbos dishes. I also never had anyone complain that my dishes are not fancy enough. And I did not regret the chips and scrapes. When our fleishig set was too broken for further use, I marched into Bed Bath and Beyond and got the simplest set of glass plates they had. They were square (my preference), they did not clash with the remaining original bowls, and they have been serving us faithfully ever since. When we moved last time, I cheerfully passed on our milchig set to a friend just starting out and marched to Ikea, where I got an equally simple set.
My kids unload the (milchig) dishwasher, but I do not worry about new chips. My kids set the table and I let them take the plates. My energy is going to human beings and not to inanimate objects. Except when I have to wash them...
When we got married, someone did give us a nicer china set. ( By nicer, I mean that the whole set was about 100$). We are using it for Pesach, which I have been making every year. I get to enjoy fancy china, but I only stress about it for a week out of the entire year
And if we ever have more than 8 at our table, I reach for paper goods without another thought. It's not china which makes Shabbos, it's the peace in the home.