I Can't Afford It
by Kathleen Fox

Why is it so hard to say, "I can't afford it?"

Oh, it’s easy to joke about not being able to afford out-of-reach luxuries like a Rolls-Royce or a private jet. But for smaller, real-life things, “Can I afford it?” is often a very real question we need to ask.

This is especially the case in the stages of life when we’re reasonably employed and able to take care of ourselves and our families, but our budgets have less extra room than a pair of super-skinny jeans. We can pay for what we need but don’t have much money for what we might want.

Affordable or not, sometimes we’d like to go out with friends, buy that blouse we see on sale, treat ourselves to expensive coffee, pick up little indulgences for our kids, or take a family vacation. Logically and realistically, we know we can’t afford some of those wants. Emotionally, that doesn’t mean we want to admit it.

Here are a few of the reasons it’s so hard to say, “I can’t afford it.”

We just want it.

It’s not much fun being responsible and reasonable all the time. Sometimes we want a break. And sometimes our inner child shows up as a toddler who simply wants what she wants when she wants it.

We want to fit in.

One of our human needs is to belong and be part of the group. We tend to want to do what our friends do, whether that is going out to lunch, buying concert tickets, or taking the kids to Disney World. Saying no when our friends are saying yes feels like putting ourselves outside of the circle.

What we want now is more appealing than what we need later.

Choice A: the immediate gratification of spending money now on something we’ll enjoy.

Choice B: saving that money because we’ll need it to pay the phone bill next week. Choice B is more responsible, but Choice A is more inviting.

We want people to think we’re successful.

Money is so tied to our perceptions of success that saying, “No, I can’t afford it,” may feel embarrassing and even shaming. It’s almost as if we’re saying, “I’m a failure.”

How can we begin to make “I can’t afford it” easier to say?

First, create a spending plan—an actual written budget with accurate numbers—on your phone, fridge, or calendar where you see it regularly. This helps you keep an eye on the bigger picture and shift your thinking from, “I can’t buy this,” to “It isn’t in the spending plan.”

Second, tell yourself the truth. You don’t have to explain your finances or justify your choices to other people; you can just politely say no. But please don’t lie to yourself about what you can and can’t afford. When you respect yourself enough to be honest, you give yourself the power to start considering alternatives and solutions.

Third, start with small choices and practice saying yes instead of no. Every time you say no to one kind of spending, you’re saying yes to something else. Focus on the positive and your power to choose what’s in your financial best interests.

Finally, don’t beat yourself up when you slip and do give yourself credit when you succeed. Every time you check your spending plan and make a deliberate decision to say, “No, I can’t afford it,” you say yes to managing your financial resources wisely. You take a small step toward financial health that allows you more choices. Including the ability to say, “Sure, I can afford that.”

Kathleen Fox is the author of Making the Best of Second Best: A Guide to Positive Stepparenting and the co-author with Rick Kahler, CFP®, of Conscious Finance.

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