What Does: “I Can’t Afford it” Actually Mean?

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”:

  1. To be able to pay (for something)
  2. To be able to do (something) without having problems or being seriously harmed.
  3. 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:

  1. Do you have enough money to buy the plane tickets to go visit your aunt?
  2. 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.
  3. 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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  1. You’re 100% right about the way kids interpret that phrase. Take it from someone who heard it frequently during childhood. Granted, my parents didn’t make that much money, but they also weren’t wise with their allocation of that money. We could have afforded most things; my parents just weren’t willing to make daily sacrifices for long-term gains. Hearing that phrase as a child made me feel insecure and inadequate. I made it a point to NEVER say that to my daughter. I also asked my mother to not do the same in her presence. Unfortunately, my mother has never changed her ways and my daughter often hears that phrase from her grandmother. Fortunately, she doesn’t hear it at home and she is old enough to be aware of the fact that mammaw doesn’t use her money wisely, even if she is on a fixed budget. It’s nice to know I’m not alone with not liking that phrase.

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s a horrible, horrible phrase around kids. My oldest daughter has even asked me what it meant. And it’s so hard to tell her that it can me so many things!

  2. I would have to agree that growing up, when someone in my group of friends said those words I would automatically assume they were less fortunate – even though I knew they weren’t. You always fear those moments when you can’t have something because you legitimately cannot pay for it. Your other 2 definitions are so important not only for kids, but for adults. Many of us still hold that mindset. Which is why we are often egged on into making purchases we cannot truly “afford”.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes. The word always makes me cringe. Because the person saying it doesn’t always think through what they mean when they say it. And I honestly think because it’s so easy to toss around for so many things, we don’t ever truly know what we mean when we say it!

  3. I find the “I can’t afford it” under definition 2/scenario 2 tricky. We may have friends we enjoy being with but don’t want to spend money with whenever they want to do something. It would be so easy to just say “We can’t afford it” but we don’t. But it sure is much harder to say “We haven’t budgeted for dinner out this month, why don’t you come over for a pizza?” If I value someone’s company I don’t care if it’s over a $75 dinner or a $15 pizza. But for people who are not accustomed to either delaying gratification or spending money consciously, that’s a difficult concept to understand. They end up thinking we’re tightwads, and that’s OK.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thank you for not saying that you can’t afford it. 🙂 spending money with friends is always tricky. I’ve been scared to say “we’re saving our money this month (/year/lifetime), but do you want to come to our house instead” – but I have found that no one argues or complains about free food at your house!

  4. A great breakdown of the word. This is one of the many reasons we involved our three children in our budget/money discussion. We wanted them to have a good understanding of everything. How much we make, what the mortgage cost, heating bill, electric bill, etc. So when I may raise my voice about lights being left on or a TV no one is warching they know the reason why. Also as the get older and begin to handle these thing on their own they have a much better handle on them from the beginning.

    • MaggieBanks

      I agree with this mentality entirely. I’ve read about parents that have put their kids in charge of all finances for a few months in high school so they learn to pay the bills on time, budget, etc. I think it’s a brilliant plan! 7 might be a bit too young… 🙂

  5. “Afford” was such a dangerous word for us. We equated it with available credit. If our balances were not maxed out, then we could “afford” all sorts of things. Now, I try not to use that phrase all at with my kids. Instead, we talk about making choices. We discuss how we could spend money on X, or we could put it towards saving up for our “big bus trip.”

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes! Discussing making money choices is the perfect route! It’s harder to do, but so much better than saying “We can’t afford that right now, honey.” Then they don’t know the difference between wanting and needing.

  6. You know that phenomenon where you say/read/hear a word a whole bunch of times in a row, and then it suddenly and weirdly loses its meaning and sounds like it’s part of a foreign language? I’m having that right now with “afford”. ford? a ford? aff-ord? foured? Lol. 🙂

    Anyways, I really like this post. I don’t have kids, but I do remember wondering exactly what that phrase meant when I was growing up. I agree that I usually thought it meant, “We can’t buy that because if we did, we’d end up penniless and homeless” or something similarly extreme. I also have to admit that I never before made the connection between the common, directly money-based meaning of “afford” and either of the other two meanings you mention. Even though they’re basically all the exact same word.

    I feel like this is a question I’ll be asking myself a lot in the near future when I start paying back my loans. For example: can I afford to go on a weekend trip to New York? Well, yes. But can I afford to go on a weekend trip to New York AND put as much as I want towards my loans this month? No. I imagine I’ll be wrestling with this type of thing on an ongoing basis.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m glad I was able to alienate the word “afford.” I’m sick of it. I always feel alienated when people use it because I recall all the connotations and possible meanings of the word. And mainly, it’s confusing when I tell my children that we’re going to help someone with Christmas because they can’t afford to have one, etc. and then they hear someone that’s doing just fine say they can’t afford to eat at the restaurant. It’s a confusing world for kids just trying to learn English – they don’t know all the many usages! And it’s definitely worth calculating the non-monetary “costs” associated with decisions.

  7. Tawcan

    Great breakdown and analysis. The way I see it, “can’t afford” means whatever we’re looking at doesn’t make sense to us at the time being.

    We plan to get our kids involved in the financial planning when they get older so they can understand the thinking and discussion behind financial decisions.

    • MaggieBanks

      We all use the phrase differently, which is hard to explain to kids that when you use it for yourself, it’s because it doesn’t “make sense at the time being” as you said, but when we use it for people we’re helping financially, it means “they can’t pay for food because they have no money.” It’s a tricky phrase. And I whole-heartedly endorse helping kids understand financial decisions. 🙂

  8. Great conversation. I try really hard not to use the word with my kids either, instead I say ‘we choose to spend our money on x, y, z because those things are important to us’.
    When the kids ask how much money we have I usually say ‘enough’, and more importantly we have each other.
    What do you do when other adults say ‘I can’t afford x, y, z’ (where I live it’s usually about real estate), or ‘you’re lucky you have x, y, z’) when it had nothing to do with luck but all about choices. I usually just bite my tongue but sometimes I wish I could send them a link to MMM 😉 just for fun! Oh dear I really need a life!

    • MaggieBanks

      That’s the perfect conversation to have with your children. I’m also not shy about telling everyone else when they say things like that: “You’re right. We’ve been really blessed. But we’ve also made choices that allow us to do that. We stay in our small house because that allows us to spend the extra money traveling as a family. It’s all about trade-offs.” – And I’ve shared stuff on my personal facebook before… and found some other readers! And some haters! It’s fun!

  9. I like to say to others that in this country we almost all have more than we NEED, many of us have more than we EXPECTED, so all we are really talking about is only what we WANT. We have to keep our wants in perspective of the balance of “your money or your life”.

  10. Very profound thoughts here, Maggie. I feel like this post could certainly tie in with Sarah’s PF messages. So much of the definition of “afford” is streamlined through cultural channels. What’s even more challening is when younger generations aew exposed to the outliers/extemeries (i.e. Someone has a filmed sweet 16 birthday party with a diamond encrusted new car as their main gift) that all of the sudden, over half the generation feels like they’re deprived because they can’t “afford” that. I think it’s fantastic what you’re teaching your kids! I find myself stating I’m making a trade off for something that means more, rather than just saying I can’t afford it. It makes for a more mutual understanding!

    • MaggieBanks

      You’re right about “afford” going through cultural challenges. And it’s interesting to look at the word “Afford” with the word “deserve.” “Afford” can lead to kids thinking their families are going to starve, but it can also lead to kids thinking they deserve things. It’s tricky to find a happy medium. Talking about money with kids in a real way is a start!

  11. I think in many ways, ‘I can’t afford’ and ‘I don’t have time’ are both horrible phrases with similar root causes. We usually can afford and we definitely do have the time, we only prefer to afford / spend it on other priorities.
    That’s good to keep in mind around children, they could it take to the first degree which isn’t really what we mean.
    Thanks for the analysis.

    • MaggieBanks

      You’re so right! Time is very similar! “I don’t have time” for me often means I spent too much time vegging, and now have to get work done. 🙂 It’s a good idea to be sure what I really mean before saying that as well!

  12. What an outstanding post! I can’t remember the last time I used the phrase, “We can’t afford it.” Not because we do or don’t have money, but because we believe the EVERYTHING – money, time, employment, friendships, possessions (with the exception of some health issues) – is a matter of the CHOICES we make. The things we choose to own, the way we choose to behave – all personal choices, with personal responsibility! It is this attitude that will absolutely guarantee that you will achieve your goals!

    • MaggieBanks

      I completely agree that everything is all about the choices we make. We have to give up some things to choose the better things.

  13. Hi M.! This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours. So profound! For whatever reason — probably because we don’t have kids! — we’ve never really used the phrase “We can’t afford that.” Not that we don’t convey the same sentiment, we just haven’t tended to use those words. I think we’ve said things more along the lines of, “That’s not in the budget,” or “That’s not a priority.” But of course with kids who might argue with that, it’s a lot simpler to have a statement they can’t refute. This whole topic makes me think about the issue of scarcity thinking, and I love that you’re thinking about how your kids perceive it, and wanting to be sure they feel safe and secure. Such a tough balance to strike. But as usual, you bring such thoughtfulness to it. Loved reading this! xo

    • MaggieBanks

      Well thank you ONL! “That’s not in the budget” or “That’s not a priority” are great replacement phrases. They are clear about your actual intentions, but don’t include all the connotations associated with the word “Afford.” Having broader discussions about priorities and trade-offs is what we should be doing in general (not just with children). We’ve all gotten too used to the word “Afford.” It’s easy. But I hate it. 🙂

  14. What a great post, and such a murky phrase. I don’t want to use that phrase ever with my kids, just from the negative connotations I had with it growing up. I heard it constantly, and yet at some point knew that we “could afford it” if my parents made better choices with their money. I hear that and think – you’re not worth it – versus it being a financial issue.

    I don’t want my kids having that same connotation with that phrase, so I just won’t use it and will find another way to explain it. That whole issue even caused another line item in our FIRE budget for when the kids get older so they can still do things like sports or scouts, or who knows what, that may cost money. I got shorted on a lot of that, and while I won’t give them the moon, I don’t want them to feel like they didn’t get to do something they really wanted to just because we chose to live a more frugal/non-traditional lifestyle.

    I heard that phrase from Mrs. SSC a lot in the beginning of our marriage, especially around choosing cars or if I wanted a boat or whatever. She would say, We can’t afford that, and I would reply, we CAN afford that, you just don’t want to afford that. BIG distinction. That was fine with me, because it was a different everything. Even now I find myself using “I can afford it, but I don’t want it that badly.” I choose not to “afford” things, but that’s been a whole mindset change for me.

    Great read, really thought provoking. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      We pay for one year of preschool (because I think that is an important preparation for all-day Kindergarten) and we also do swimming lessons. Around 4, we’ve put the kids in something else as well… Florin did gymnastics, and Penny did dance. We’ll add piano lessons as they get older. We want them to be able to experience those things as well… but it’s also really easy to get tied into doing too many things and spending too much money. We’ve trying to find a good balance there, though it’s tough!

      • Yeah balance is key. Some friends of ours describe their weekends as “going from one activity to another” and their kids have little to no downtime except the evenings. It just seems wrong to not let kids be kids to some extent.

        • MaggieBanks

          YES! I talk to parents that are always concerned about how olympic athletes started when they were 4 or concert pianists/professional dancers, etc. And I think “I want my kids to have a childhood” more than anything. 🙂

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