Stop Saying “I Can’t Afford It”!
I am often uneasy with the phrase “I can’t afford it,” especially with my children. This phrase is used to mean so many different things. In some scenarios, it means “We literally couldn’t scrape enough money to buy that even with credit cards, payday loans, or selling plasma.” For us, we use this when the kids say something ridiculous like “I wish we lived in that mansion on the beach in Hawaii.” With our incomes, there is no possible way to make that happen. No bank would give us that loan and we do not have enough assets and investments to sell everything to make it happen. Thinking you can afford something when you can’t is also dangerous.
Other times, “We can’t afford it” means someone that has a cash-only mindset. It disregards putting the purchase on credit cards or taking out any loans (payday or otherwise). This example would be a new couch or car for someone that doesn’t have enough cash saved up to pay cash for the purchase. Then there’s the “we can’t afford it” because that money is allocated elsewhere. This is the one we’re most cautious about. By all previous definitions, we can afford it. We have enough cash to make it happen, (and can track it all with our free Personal Capital account) but we choose not to buy another car because we (already have two and three would be ridiculous) would rather save that money to retire early. For my young children, it is often unclear which definition people are using. I’ve realized that most of the time, the kids hear the very first definition: we literally don’t have enough money to make that happen no matter what we do.
It is important to me that my children feel secure. I don’t want them to be worried that someday we won’t have a place to live, clothes to wear, or food to eat because they hear “We can’t afford that” too many times. But it’s also important to me that my children understand that we are lucky to have so much and we make conscious choices about where we spend that money based on our priorities.
What Does “I Can’t Afford it” Mean?
There’s more to the word “afford” that make the phrase more interesting. Here are the definitions of “afford”:
- To be able to pay (for something)
- To be able to do (something) without having problems or being seriously harmed.
- To supply or provide (something needed or wanted) to someone.
Definition number one is the one that involves money. If you are looking for something to tell you how to keep track of your finances, sign up for a FREE Personal Capital account. It will show you in charts and graphs where all of your money is! But we all know there’s more to the word “afford” than just finances…
Definition number two is about life choices. We can’t afford to ignore our health. We can’t afford to wait. Under this definition, “We can’t afford it” means that we’ve examined the costs beyond money and figured out where the value is. “We can’t afford it” means we’re setting aside something negative for a positive result (ie: laziness for a lifetime of health). It involves doing something to avoid a negative consequence (ie: hiking a glacier this year instead of waiting before it recedes). Under this definition, deciding whether or not you can afford something is much more difficult than numbers on a page. The definition is the same, but the money is arbitrary.
The third definition is my personal favorite. “The hotel room affords wonderful views of the mountains.” That sounds lovely. More importantly, “He afforded blankets for her children and food for her table.” The negative of this definition is to NOT give someone something needed or wanted. “She didn’t afford him a reply.” This definition means we’re giving. We’re choosing whether it’s worth it for us and for the other person for an exchange of something to be made. For personal choices, this definition includes both of the previous definitions. When choosing to give, one takes into account whether they can afford it monetarily. They also examine the options and consequences. The person has to decide whether they can afford to give something without major problems.
Using “Afford” Appropriately:
Let’s examine the scenario of visiting your aunt with all three definitions:
- Do you have enough money to buy the plane tickets to go visit your aunt?
- Can you afford to go in non-monetary terms? What if your aunt is ill and alone? You don’t want to miss the opportunity to see her and comfort her. In that scenario, you can’t afford not to go. On the flip side, what if your aunt is vicious. She verbally assaults you the second you walk in the door. She’s just downright horrible. Her health is fine and you’ll see her next summer at another family gathering. In this scenario, you can afford to pass up the trip. The negative consequences of missing the visit with your aunt are seemingly slim.
- Will you afford her your presence? This question takes into account both definitions 1 and 2, but flips the question to being about someone else. When I ask you whether you will go visit your aunt, you immediately think about your own convenience and monetary cost. When I ask: “Will you afford her a visit?” you pause a moment to think about your aunt first.
Decisions about how we spend our time, money, and energy are rarely straightforward. We take into account the monetary value of things, but we also consider the consequences. Rarely do we examine the third definition of the word “afford” and ask ourselves if we are willing to look at the needs of someone else first.
All of the definitions:
I can afford to stay home with my children. I afford them my time because I can’t afford not to.
In every decision we make, financial or otherwise, we are making decisions about what we can afford to do and what we can’t afford to do. If everything was really about just that first monetary definition, the path toward financial awesomeness would be easy. Snap people into the cash mindset (ignoring loans), and everyone would be able to quickly calculate if they can afford it or not. Enough money in the bank? I can afford it! No? I can’t afford it. But even the finances are complicated in that regard. The answer to what you can afford is probably very different than mine even with the exact same net worth. We need money to be at work building compound interest, so we can’t just use it all up. Then there is a time trade-off. We’ve made choices with our finances because our children are young and will grow up quickly and some of those calculations involve time with them now and enjoying the present moment.
When I use the word “afford” with my children, I am careful that they know that we are comfortable, have enough money to fill our needs, and that they will be safe. I avoid using the phrase: “We can’t afford it” if it’s a choice we’ve made to not spend that money because we have higher priorities. In a strict monetary definition, there are many people that cannot afford basic necessities. We can.
“I can’t afford that” carries many meanings and connotations. It may imply that you do not have enough money or assets to your name to make it happen financially. But it could also mean that you emotionally can’t handle it. See what happens if you try to avoid the word “afford” entirely. Chances are, eliminating that one word and seeking an alternate will clear up your actual meaning for both yourself and others. Maybe you’ll even realize the “why” behind that choice, and that’s the most important thing you can afford yourself.
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