Is a double-edged sword
On the campaign toward
A financial hoard.
I'm fortunate that both of my parents are very frugal. My mom always took us grocery shopping, and she painstakingly taught us how to buy bulk and calculate price per unit. My dad is the kind of person who can repair things with a twig, some duct tape, and a piece of rubber hose. When my brothers and I would whine or beg for stuff, we would first hear "we can't afford it." If we kept up the pressure, the next we would hear was "Ask me again!" (Translation: don't ask me again). I feel sorry for people who never learned the value of a dollar, whose financial transactions are a cloud of confusion and unease.
On the other hand, it can be hard to learn that you can still hold onto a penny without squeezing it until your fingers start turning colors. When my parents found their dream house, after over thirty years of marriage, they were really hesitant to make an offer on it. It was hard for all of us to believe they had really saved enough to buy a place like that. They had, though, and the numbers said Can Afford even though a part of them still said Can't inside. I think they still feel that way sometimes, even after living there for several years. This? Us? HERE?
I know I identify with that. It was only a few years ago that I was able to go to the grocery check stand and pay for my bags without holding my breath, worrying that my card wouldn't go through. I still remember how excited I was the day my retirement account balance was finally higher than the balance on my student loan. Paradoxically, I don't really have to worry about money because I'll never really stop worrying about money.
Here's the thing about thinking you Can't Afford something. It limits you in one way, and it gives you license in another. Can't Afford shuts down the option of earning more to pay for it, bartering for it, finding out a way to get it cheaper, or simply realizing you aren't really interested in it. In most cases, it turns out that most people don't really know exactly how much something costs. We assume we Can't Afford things without doing the research, and therefore never realize: CAN!
I don't want an ice sculpture - what the heck would I do with it? It doesn't matter to me what they cost. I just think of them as expensive and Not for the Likes of Me. It never crosses my mind that I could learn to *make* an ice sculpture, have as many as I want whenever I want, and then start selling them to rich people who like that sort of thing.
I can buy a round-trip airline ticket to almost anywhere in the world for $1200. That's a hundred dollars a month for a year, or $25 a week, or $5 a business day. Can I come up with something to do that would earn me $5 a day? Oh snap. Now I have to figure out where I would go.
Can't Afford is a fallacy. Maybe I don't have enough purchasing power to pay for this specific thing at this very moment. There is no way to confirm, however, that I never will. I can't rule it out. I can't rule out getting more education, working harder and getting promoted, meeting generous new friends, winning a contest, or coming up with an idea for a lucrative side hustle. I'm precluding the entire discipline of paying for things with reward points. When I tell myself I Can't Afford something, I am permanently shutting it down. I am canceling it as an option.
It's fine to say "I'm not interested in that" or "I'm more than satisfied with everything I have right now." What's the point of rejecting it over price, though?
The other problem about thinking in terms of what we Can't Afford is that our focus is redirected to things we think we Can Afford. What this means in practice is that we fritter away small amounts of money on a regular basis, when they could have added up to something nice. As an example, I used to buy a bag of Fritos and a can of Pepsi out of the vending machine at work every afternoon. At the time it cost $1.35. Assuming I worked fifty weeks that year, that would have added up to $337.50. Sometimes, though, I also got a bag of trail mix. I deeply felt at the time that I Couldn't Afford much of anything. In reality, there are all kinds of things I could have bought with three hundred dollars that I would have enjoyed more than my daily snack habit. My household income is now more than triple what it was then, but I no longer feel attracted to vending machine snacks. I no longer feel a sense of scarcity around "depriving myself."
The more my household income has gone up, the less stuff I have and the less I weigh.
I'm often surprised by what people who Can't Afford things actually buy. Most people would evidently feel deprived by living the way my husband and I do. Our house is smaller than the apartments of our twenty-something friends. We only have one vehicle. We don't have cable. I've never had a professional manicure. We don't drink alcohol or coffee. We walk right by the snack aisle at the grocery store.
I realized the other day that we've never ordered takeout during our entire ten-year relationship. Not even pizza delivery.
A lot of people would freak out if they felt that they "had" to live the way we do. Yet they also feel a chronic sense of scarcity. They feel that they Can't Afford things that we feel we can. They perceive a certain bandwidth of acceptable, affordable expenses, and that we're ruling out many of those options. Since they never look above their affordability ceiling, they don't see that a far broader set of options are available to them than they ever realized.
Think of it this way. What was your true heart's desire when you were ten years old? When I was ten, I wanted: candy, stickers, ice cream cones, tickets for arcade games or amusement park rides, the occasional stuffed animal, and...a PARROT. Happily, I have the parrot, and she came to me as a gift. She's a poofy little kissyface. I can easily afford literally everything else I ever wanted as a ten-year-old. How often do I stop and feel impressed by that fact? Basically never. The Can Afford stratum of a ten-year-old child is now beneath my notice. Yet I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined at age ten the kinds of things I could afford as an adult. Even a poor adult.
If Present Me could reach back in time, I would give Past Self: Age 10 a $20 bill and tell me to knock myself out. "Don't spend it all in one place, honey." Past Me would literally drop my jaw. Then I would show me that I finally learned to spin a hula hoop, and it would be the most awesome day ever.
Why is it that we have so much more money now, and yet we're so bad at having fun with it?
When we keep telling ourselves and others that we Can't Afford things, we're focusing on scarcity. We're not talking about all the wondrous things we Can Afford, like a walk in the park, a visit to the public library, an afternoon of listening to music and drawing pictures, or The Entire Internet. I mean really. Saying "I can't spend money" is exactly the same as saying "I can't earn money." It's much more productive, and fun, to start thinking, "How much can I do with what I have right now?
Note: After writing this, I looked up the cost of an ice sculpture. I learned that I could get one for as little as $45. For the $300 I spent on Fritos and Pepsi, I could have had an ice sculpture of a swan or a pair of lovebirds, or in 1990s money, maybe something even fancier. I can look at pictures of them for free. Or I can have a glass of ice water and think of all the kings and queens throughout history who could not.
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.