We’ve all been there, faced with a choice, thinking, “I can’t afford it.” Sometimes it’s friends asking us to get lunch. Occasionally it’s our kids asking for some candy at the grocery store checkout. Other times it’s just us, wanting to treat ourselves.
Regardless of the situation, when money is tight, the desire to be responsible doesn’t always beat out the temptation to splurge just a little.
There are times when we’re strong, and we don’t give in. Even though it’s tough, we bolster up. If we need extra resolve, we’ll whip out a handy little phrase to solidify the decision.
“I can’t afford it.”
We like the sense of finality. It paints us into a corner, typically ending all objections before they come. This phrase stops your friends from trying to convince you and your kids from trying to bargain.
Saying, “I can’t afford it,” gives us a sense of martyrdom and the pride of sacrifice for a higher goal. It’s a tough call to make, but that’s what being responsible is all about, right?
That’s what I thought, at least. I thought that little phrase was my saving grace when I needed a quick exit, like a phone call from a friend when on a bad date. It was my get out of jail free card.
Then I began to wonder, what if that little phrase was doing more damage than good? What if there was a better way?
Read on, and you’ll learn why not to say “I can’t afford it” and what you can say instead!
1. Saying “I Can’t Afford It” Creates Negative Feelings
When you tell yourself or others that you can’t afford something, it reinforces a negative narrative. This can be especially damaging if you’re already struggling with money. When you’re struggling, you likely have negative thoughts and feelings about your situation already.
Skip the self-deprecation and the unnecessary guilt trip because they aren’t doing you any good.
It’s also possible you might be accidentally hurting others. When we tell people we can’t afford time with them, they might hear, “you aren’t important to me.”
This is especially true of friends, but don’t forget about your significant other! If they aren’t sold out on the spending plan, it’s possible they could feel like you are valuing money over them. This was the case in my marriage for years until we learned to communicate better.
2. Your Kids Might Believe You
One of my good friends told me a story of a time when he was younger. He overheard his parents talking about how they had to cut back on some areas they really enjoyed because of his expensive medical treatments. It didn’t take long for him to internalize that conversation. Soon, he started being dishonest about how bad his condition was because he didn’t want to be a burden.
This situation is different than your kids asking for candy at the checkout. However, it brilliantly showcases how children can internalize narratives that may not be entirely accurate. When communicating why you choose to spend your money elsewhere, don’t automatically go for the easy answer. It can sometimes do hidden damage to your kids that you won’t recognize until much later.
3. Saying “I Can’t Afford It” Makes You Lazy
The first time you do anything, it’s the start of a pattern. Continue the pattern, and it becomes a habit. For good or bad, habits are like instincts – we do them without thinking.
With “I can’t afford that” in your holster, you no longer have to think about your priorities. Your priorities stop being insightful guides and quickly become blind restrictions, stopping you from making choices.
Without taking the time to evaluate your purchases, you’re denying your responsibility to make significant choices. Not only that, you’re likely going to miss out on some great experiences along the way.
4. It Encourages a Comparison Mindset
Ever been in a place where you compare what your life looks like to someone else’s? If you answered “no,” will you become my mentor and teach me how to reach your impressive levels of zen?
Otherwise, you may want to evaluate what role your language plays in encouraging that mindset. A few years back, my wife and I had some friends that frequently invited us out to go out. I would often decline by saying, “we couldn’t afford it.”
Sometimes, I would accept the invitation out of shame because I didn’t want to always be the “poor friend.” Unfortunately, I wouldn’t enjoy myself because I spent the whole time thinking about how I shouldn’t spend money.
It didn’t take long for me to start comparing myself to them. I wondered how they were able to spend so much on going out all the time. It made me feel discontent about my situation and choices. Had I not dealt with it, the comparison would have likely turned into resentment and bitterness.
5. You Can Afford It
This might be the hardest thing to accept because it feels the least true, but the truth is you can afford most of the things that come your way. You just can’t afford all of the things that come your way.
That means your decisions matter. One of my professors at university always used to say, “who you are today is the result of many small decisions over many days in your past.”
When you are in the middle of deciding whether or not to spend money, that choice, though small, adds up. That choice, when combined with all the other small choices, will result in your future.
This means the power to define your future is mostly in your hands. Before you’re in the moment, determine where you want to be in the future. Then, in the moment, make the decision that takes you one step closer.
Just don’t forget to enjoy yourself a little along the way. You may get the future you wanted and realize too late that you missed the present along the way.
Try This Instead
Instead of saying, “I can’t afford it,” simply do two things.
- Tell the truth.
- Reinforce the relationship.
This two-step process will help you be more honest with yourself, stay on track with your financial goals while ensuring those closest to you know you value them.
For example, if you’re working hard to pay down debt and are prioritizing that overeating out when a friend invites you to go to dinner, simply say, “Thanks so much for the invite, but right now my spouse and I are prioritizing paying off our debt and are using the money we used to spend on going out to eat to get ahead. We really love hanging out with you guys, though! Could we host dinner at our place instead?”
By being honest, you avoid all the pitfalls of making an excuse while also avoiding all the potential hurt of saying “no.” Even though you declined their offer, you are still reinforcing how much you value time with them and appreciate the invite by offering to host dinner.
This two-step response is simple, honest, and empowering. It keeps you on pace toward reaching your goals while also retaining your ability to make the right choice for you in the moment.
Next time you’re facing a tough spending choice, don’t default to, “I can’t afford it.” Instead, just remember to tell the truth and reinforce the relationship. If you do that, you’ll be in good shape!