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Never Say “I Can’t Afford It” Again

I dislike the term “I can’t afford it.”  It sounds victim-like.  I prefer “I choose not to spend my money on that.”  Which is a lot longer and weirder to say but it is more accurate.  And it comes from a place of power unlike “I can’t afford it.”

There is very little you truly can’t afford. I can’t afford a 50 million dollar mansion.  True.  No matter how I changed my life right now I couldn’t afford it.  But a fancy pair of shoes, yes.  A fancy car, yes. A bigger house, yes.  More vacations, yes.  There are lots of things I could afford if I wanted to, but I choose not to because I am pursuing other goals.  I also can’t have ALL those things.  I could have one, maybe two of them.  If I wanted a fancy car more than anything in the world then I would have to live in a smaller house, and eat out less, and never go on vacation.  But I could have it if I wanted it bad enough.

The same goes for you.  Language is a powerful thing.  I’ve been writing about it a lot lately.  Try saying “I choose not to spend my money on that.” instead of “I can’t afford it” and see how it feels.  I bet you feel more in control of the situation.  You can imagine a scenario where you could buy it but the lifestyle that goes along with it isn’t something you would want.  You might think “Yes, I could buy that $50,000 car but then I would have to eat Mac and Cheese for dinner every night and live in a studio apartment with my 3 kids.  So instead of that lifestyle I choose to buy a used clunker and eat real food and live in a house that fits us.”  Those are choices you are free to make.  That’s powerful.

I was at a restaurant a few years back and they had one of those candy grabber machines.  You know where you pay 50 cents and the claw comes down and grabs 3 cents worth of candy.  A generic tootsie roll and a Dum-Dum lollipop.  You know the kind.  Anyways, a little girl wanted some candy and her dad said “No, we can’t aff…  We don’t spend our money on that.”

Love it!!

He started to say “We can’t afford it.” which probably would have pacified the little girl but it wasn’t true.  They could afford 50 cents.  But it wasn’t a good use of the money.  “I can’t afford” it might have made the little girl feel like she was inferior to other kids who were getting candy out of the machine.  “We don’t spend our money on that” changes that dynamic.  We do have the money but we are choosing not to spend it.  That’s a whole different situation.

What do you think?

22 comments… add one

  • gharkness July 5, 2011, 6:32 am

    Well, I was all set to argue with you about the term “affordable.” To me, “affordability” means: do ALL the parameters fit to make this a wise purchase? So, for me, I would not be able to “afford” a very expensive car, even if I could pay cash for it, because it wouldn’t make sense to buy that kind of car.

    Then you went and threw in the example with the little girl, and **that** totally changed the way I look at the subject. You are so right! Children should not be made to feel they are somehow inferior just because their parents don’t buy every trinket that comes along (whether or not they have enough money to actually do so.) Using the words you suggested instead impart a much better attitude and teach a better lesson that the little girl will remember, and it may also positively influence her choices in the future.

    I can’t believe it took me so long to find your blog. Of ALL the personal finance blogs I read – and as a CPA, I read a LOT of them because I love the topic – I truly like yours the best.

  • Jeff Reed July 5, 2011, 6:36 am

    Ashley,
    Thank you for your post. I have seen the impact of positive and negative self-talk in my profession for over 2 decades. I was challenged 20 years ago in a memory training program not to say “I’ll never remember …” and instead say aloud “It will come to me later” and believe it. It worked then and it works now.

    I started using this approach with my financial planning clients. I believed if they could visualize what success would look like aside from just numbers on paper then they could stay the course through good times and bad. Those that chose positive self talk have for the most part remained on an even keel during market chaos.

    One of my friends has a great daily post that he started for his children. In his twitter profile he describes it as: “Thoughts are Things, daily readings for kids about spirituality, responsibility, planning, relationships, gratitude and love.” You can check it out at @davidmoon74 to see positive teaching in action.

    Thank you for your blog. While I don’t always comment I read it regulary.

  • Ashley July 5, 2011, 7:56 am

    Thank you both for your lovely comments. You made my heart smile.

  • Jeffrey Trull July 5, 2011, 9:01 am

    This immediately made me think of some of my friends from high school and college. I would get the “I can’t afford it” from them for a lot of things, yet they clearly spent money on other stuff that they shouldn’t have been able to afford either. I wouldn’t have minded if they simply said something like “I don’t want to spend money on that,” but I never once heard them say anything like that.

  • Krantcents July 5, 2011, 11:11 am

    I agree language is everything! I see myself as “value conscious”. If I don’t see the value in buying something, I don’t buy it. I love high quality products, but I refuse to pay full retail. I just replaced my 25 year old attache (leather) with a nylon case (retail $175) for $52.22 delivered.

  • Hunter July 5, 2011, 2:59 pm

    I like the psychology of using this language Ashley. It really is about choice, unless the example is totally out of reach like a space-shuttle for the back yard. Also, I think the use of this language is empowering. It conveys a sense of being in control of spending on calculated wants and needs rather than being a victim of unobtainable desires.

  • Andy Hough July 5, 2011, 3:11 pm

    What you can afford usually is a choice. GRS had a blog post that talked about some of the same things today. Psychology is important when it comes to personal finance. I don’t see being frugal as depriving myself of things but as making better choices on what I do spend my money on.

  • Jackie July 5, 2011, 4:08 pm

    I’m totally with you on this. It’s funny how much of an impact the things we say to ourselves (and to others) actually does have. Plus why not just tell the truth? I tend to say “No, that’s not what I want to do with my money right now.” or “Oh, I do want to go out to eat but I’d rather put that money toward paying off our house.”

  • Travis @DebtChronicles July 5, 2011, 8:10 pm

    I’ve been trying to get my wife on board with this concept for quite awhile. Yes, we can go to a movie this weekend. Yes, we could go out to eat. But we can’t do both. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing!

  • Financial Success for Young Adults July 6, 2011, 11:12 am

    That one simple adjustment in language makes a world of difference in action. As I work on building my budget, I also have to remind myself that I choose to spend my money on what I buy and a budget is only as restrictive as what I decide.

  • Christa July 7, 2011, 11:12 am

    I now have a new way to say what I actually mean! “I choose not to spend my money on that” is perfect. It’s exactly what I mean most of the times when I say “I can’t afford it”.

  • Lindy Mint July 7, 2011, 12:59 pm

    I love your reinventing of that phrase. I once overheard a dad talking to his small son at the park, telling him that they would never have one of those kiddy cars (the motorized ones) like those other kids do, because “that’s for rich kids.” I secretly hope that kid grows up to be a millionaire in defiance of his dad’s statement.

    I also like the Rich Dad Poor Dad statement of saying “how can I afford it,” instead of “I can’t.”

  • Julie @ The Family CEO July 7, 2011, 4:00 pm

    Usually, the simplest concepts are the most powerful. This is one of those.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • LK July 8, 2011, 5:26 am

    So glad I found this post… As I’ve recently gotten serious about paying down my debt, I’ve had to start telling my friends no a lot of times. (Young and single, so other than myself the friends are the only ones I have to say no to.)

    I’m going to try “I choose not to spend my money on that” instead of “I don’t have the money for that.” It is empowering and maybe will help them understand where I’m coming from.

  • The Saved Quarter July 13, 2011, 8:54 pm

    I’m right with you! I wrote about this last year:
    http://thesavedquarter.com/2010/01/banning-the-words-i-cant-afford-it/

    Here’s part of what I wrote then, which is right in line with your thoughts:
    Saying, “I can’t afford” in front of them puts the don’t-haves up front, in a position they don’t deserve.

    Instead, I’m saying, “That’s not how we are choosing to spend our money.” I’m explaining why, too. The toy may be fun now, but how long will that fun last? Is it worth the cost? Do we have something at home that will do the same job, or can we make something similar? The kids are learning that we control where our money goes, and that spending is a choice. It’s also a great opportunity to explain our values in context, which I hope will have a deeper impact.

  • Sunny Day July 28, 2011, 8:00 pm

    Thank you for the reminder. I used to say “I am not spending my money on that”. Lately I find myself saying “I can’t afford it”. Which is not true. I will now be more conscious about my choice of words.

  • Meesh August 10, 2011, 8:56 pm

    Thanks for this, I often struggle with keeping a positive attitude and sometimes I forget how much the little things contribute to that.

    Of course, I can’t start using this until I can afford anything (right now, the only things I can afford are candy bars, I’m all but broke until I get my first paycheck of my most recent job), but once I have money again, remembering this post will help me feel better about what I do have, instead of griping about what isn’t convenient for me.

  • Sandy @ yesiamcheap August 28, 2011, 4:35 pm

    Suze Orman’s entire mantra is build around “you can not afford it”. What do we say to Suze? I like to think more like, “I don’t really need it”.

  • Maggie@SquarePennies November 19, 2011, 4:29 pm

    Excellent! I am putting this phrase into my vocabulary today! It’s a great way to teach the kids too.

  • Scott February 28, 2012, 12:16 pm

    I’m here by chance and look forward to reading more here. Anyway, I have a few expensive hobbies and have decided to cut back. I’ve found myself saying, “I have other places I’d rather put my money.” It wasn’t until after reading here that I realized it does sound better and more disciplined than, “I can’t afford that.” Thanks for the perspective.

  • malene palaje March 20, 2012, 8:32 am

    i love what you said here. so powerful indeed.

  • Pram February 14, 2013, 10:31 am

    I love this, especially now. as we are looking to buy our first home and in the location we love.

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