Have you ever noticed how rarely it is that people actually admit they can’t afford things? In a world of scarcity, where our desires continually outpace our means, we all act like we can afford everything.
It’s somehow seen as being shameful or dirty to not be able to afford something. Or, at a minimum, something you most definitely shouldn’t say aloud or in mixed company.
Society forces us to make up several euphemisms for not being able to afford something. Instead of saying “I can’t afford it,” we say “I’ve got other plans” or “I’m busy that night.” Or, we simply whip out the Amex and run our credit card balance a little higher, hoping for a windfall of a tax refund to bail out our financial issues.
The amazing thing is that most people can’t afford most things.
I know that sounds a bit crazy. But if you look at savings rates, average credit card balances, typical student loan payments, and more, most of us are pretty much flat broke, regardless of how much money we bring in. This is not a function of our income, either. When we make more money, we spend more money.
When I was in college, I lived off of around $8k/year. I paid nearly all of my own bills (only exception was my cell phone), and was fairly strict with my money. Then, my $8k/year lifestyle made me feel like a king. I feasted on Taco Tuesdays and figured out how to stretch a $2 meal deal at Taco Bell into a fabulous lifestyle. Sure, I had a few months where I was so broke it would make your mama blush. But generally, I lived extremely well off of extremely little.
When I went to the oilfields, I started making some serious money for the first time in my life. I’m proud to say I didn’t blow all of it. I funded a Roth IRA, bought an engagement ring, bought a wonderful honeymoon, furnished my first apartment, and paid off a little debt. But when I sat down to calculate it out, I figured there was about $20,000 of completely unaccounted for earnings that had been completely blown. I’m still not sure on what, exactly. It was here that I learned this important fact about money: I can be just as broke making $80k in the oilfields as I can making $8k as a student. My spending scaled faster than my discipline.
Am I currently a paragon of self-control when it comes to personal finance? Not by a long shot. I’ve got my share of stupid mistakes, blunders, and misdeeds when it comes to personal finance. I’ve not yet reigned in all of my reckless spending habits (thanks, in part, to the modern marvel that is Amazon Prime).
However, I do think it’s important that we reclaim the phrase “I can’t afford it” from the scrap pile. In order to do this, we are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are not the Rockefellers (it should be noted that while the Rockefellers are often synonymous with excess, they actually lived remarkably austere lives). It’s okay to not be able to afford something.
Your definition of afford should include saving for long-term goals and paying down your debts–not simply a reflection of the available credit left on your credit cards. Newsflash: Getting a credit card with a $10k limit means you now have $10k worth of potential temptation to keep you from your long-term financial goals. You are not $10k richer, even though I’ve seen some friends skip around giddily as though they won the lottery at getting a higher credit card limit.
You are not entitled to everything. There are trips and clothes and experiences that you are going to have to miss out on. I’m not talking about delayed gratification, either. I’m talking about things you will miss out on forever. And that’s perfectly fine. You don’t need to experience everything. Most people across the world experience quite little, especially when surveyed over history. Embrace the fact that you do not have to have it all. In fact, that’s impossible and “having it all” will likely make you miserable.
In order to bring back being able to casually admit our inability to afford things, we need to get one important fact lodged in our brain: There’s nothing shameful about not being able to afford something. If you think about your income relative to the world’s goods and services, over 99.9999% of it is stuff you simply can’t afford. That is, your income is only a tiny fraction of a much larger pond. So, you actually can’t afford most things. This isn’t a character fault or a shortcoming–it’s just simple math. Embrace it, and its truth will set you free.
If we can all just admit we can’t afford things to one another, it might open up fascinating conversations about wealth and happiness and materialism that otherwise may escape our view. By admitting the vast number of things we can’t afford, we can make space for the few things we can afford. This will allow us to prioritize and select those things that truly make us happy. It will also allow us to help our friends achieve their financial goals, become debt free, and lead happier and less-stressed lives. That sort of peace of mind is something we could all afford.