I Can't Afford That

Aah … the four little words that have ruled most of my adult financial life.


In graduate school — when I couldn’t afford anything beyond basic necessities — I wore those four words as a badge of honor. Unlike so many of my peers who didn’t live within their means, they helped me be clear on what was inside my budget and what wasn’t.


When I got my first full-time job, I was able to share, save, and spend with a little more freedom, indulging some of my wants as well as my needs. And yet, I still found myself clinging tightly to those four words: “I can’t afford that.” Every time my boyfriend (now husband) suggested we have a special dinner out. Every time I was out shopping and found a new dress that wasn’t on sale. I was so used to saying “no” that I didn’t know how to say “yes,” even if it was something I wanted (and really could afford!).


Today, in the best financial position I’ve ever been in, I still find myself blurting out these four words. I’ve used them to justify my frugality. I’ve used them to deny myself something that seems a little too ostentatious. And, mainly, I’ve used them because they are easier than what I really should say: “That’s just not something I want to spend money on.”


Please hear me: These four words can be an important tool to help you stay focused and reach your financial goals. But I’ve also learned that they can bring the conversation to complete halt, especially when used in response to an idea your partner shares. They can diminish the financial situation you’ve worked so hard to achieve, cheat your partner (and yourself) out of a potentially great opportunity, and let fear get the best of you. Don’t you, your partner, and your vision of a fulfilling life together deserve better than that?


If you’ve found yourself instinctively using these four words, try asking these four questions instead:


1.     Can I actually afford it? Even if seems like a bit of a stretch, I invite you to suspend your judgement for a few minutes and seriously consider the idea or opportunity instead of rejecting it outright. Then, if you really can’t afford it, it’s ok to say so.

Tip: If this really is a situation where you can’t afford it, focus on what you’re gaining by not spending the money. “If we invest in this now, we may not be able to meet our goal of being debt free in two years.” “If we take this opportunity, it may mean less money toward our dream vacation.” Be gentle — there’s no need to make you or your partner feel guilty. Instead, remind each other of the goals you agreed on together and keep one another accountable. If you can, keep this idea on the list for the future, even if you can’t make it happen right now.


2.     Is this something I value? Does this opportunity align with the values, people, and places you care about most? If so, lean into that alignment. If not, proceed to the next question.

Tip: I often end up in a bind because the opportunity is something I value, but I’m concerned taking advantage of it will get in the way of other goals I value more. If that trips you up too, invite your partner to give you a reality check. I often find it’s not the opportunity itself that holds me back, it’s the fear that this spending might become a pattern. If we go out for one fancy dinner, what’s to stop us from doing it every weekend? If that’s what’s keeping you from saying yes, express that concern and then find parameters that work for you both.


3.     Is it something my partner values? I cannot stress how vital this is. If an opportunity is important to your partner, hear them out. Do not just shut them down from the get-go. Ask questions: What excites you about this opportunity? Why is this important to you? Be genuinely curious about their answers — they may surprise you.

Tip: If you really can’t afford to make this opportunity happen, it’s even more important that you listen to the answer above. Is there a way you can do something that creates a similar experience but costs less? For instance, if the opportunity is a tasting menu at a fancy restaurant and what your partner values most is quality time spent with quality food, could you buy fancier ingredients and make a multi-course dinner together at home?


4.     What’s really causing me to say no? It’s important to step back and identify what’s scaring you about this opportunity. Why the sudden urge to shut it down? Is it because it’s something new that you haven’t tried before? Is it because it isn’t something you thought would fit into your vision of a fulfilling life? Are you embarrassed by it? Is it something that doesn’t fit neatly into your life plan? Is it because it may get in the way of other goals? Are you afraid this is one step away from becoming a pattern?

Tip: When you sense fear or anxiety rising up during a conversation, instead of shutting the opportunity down, say “Can we think about this?” Give yourself a timeline (a day, a week) to let the idea marinate and then come back to discuss it. Instead of shoving the idea away, bring it closer, try it on, and identify your fears so you can come back to the conversation with a more honest reflection of where you stand.


As I’ve tried to honor my husband’s ideas and break my own thought patterns, I’ve been challenging myself to say more often, “That’s not something I value.” It’s not an easy answer to give, but it becomes easier when I follow it up with, “… but tell me more about why this is important to you.”


Do you struggle with hiding behind these four words? What tips do you have for digging deeper and getting past them to the true answer?

 This Thursday, Nov. 7, I’ll be posting a video on Facebook and IGTV about other catch phrases that can shut down the conversation, and how to get around them.