What Do People Mean When They Say, “I Can’t Afford It”

Just what is meant when an individual or group claims they cannot afford something? This is an important point because appeals for financial assistance have their foundation in the idea that someone (a relative, friend, business associate, etc.) or some group can’t afford something, and therefore, someone else should help them pay for it. I’m not talking about charity for the indigent or donations to causes, but about those appeals that imply that an individual or group is somehow disadvantaged because they cannot afford something that other people have such as an education, job training, health insurance, transportation, the means to purchase a house, pay for medical care, start a business, and so forth.

The success of these claims in securing other people’s money is rooted in a rationale of fairness. It is unfair that some can afford these things and others can’t. This assumes that what is affordable is an objective distinction rather than a subjective one. In other words, those who can’t afford something are victims of circumstance. They can’t help it. It’s not their fault. Therefore, that some are able to afford the item in question and others are not is unfair.

But what if the distinction between affordable and unaffordable is a subjective one? What if it is a matter of choice based on individual priorities and preferences and not of circumstance? Then fairness has nothing to do with it.

When I was a child, I assumed that when someone said he couldn’t afford something, it meant there wasn’t enough money. I heard this most often from my parents which led me to believe that we, as a family, didn’t have much money. We could hardly ever afford anything that I wanted, or so it seemed to me.

As a novice salesman, I quickly came to understand that when a prospect said he couldn’t afford life insurance or waterless, stainless steel cookware or whatever product I was trying to sell, it could mean a great many things—the least of them being that there simply wasn’t enough money. It was a lot more complicated than that.

Early in my sales career, a veteran salesman took me aside and taught me that if I was to be successful in separating people from their money, I must be skillful in discovering their deepest desires. People always find a way to afford what they really want, he said. My job was to connect my product with their deepest desires.

When a prospect said he couldn’t afford my product, he really meant he’d rather spend his money on something else, something he valued more than my product. It was a choice.

At this moment, I can’t afford a new automobile. I have the cash to make a down payment and the means to make the monthly payments. I even have enough money to pay cash, if I wanted to do that. But I have a serviceable vehicle that is paid for. It is only five years old with less than 30,000 miles of use. In my view, it would be a waste of money to buy a new automobile and take the hit on the depreciation when I already own one that is nearly new. In other words, the cost of a new automobile is more than the perceived value to me.

What I really mean when I say I can’t afford a new automobile is that I don’t need one. It is not a high priority for me. I make the choice.

When my son was born back in 1975, I had no health insurance coverage because I chose to change jobs a few months earlier. He suffered from jaundice and spent seven days in the hospital. Upon his release, I pledged to pay the twelve hundred dollars I owed the hospital in monthly installments of twenty-five dollars each.

Money was tight then. I just never seemed to be able to afford to make those payments—not even the first one. There was always something more important, at least to me, upon which to spend my money. I made the choices.

A year or so later, a lawyer contacted me to collect the money owed to the hospital. Somehow I suddenly was able to afford a $50 monthly payment to the lawyer. I never missed a payment from then on. What had changed? The lawyer had made the re-payment of the debt a very high priority for me. I made a different choice.

A few months before my son was born, I decided that I wanted to buy a house. I had no money in savings with which to afford a down payment or to pay closing costs. Undeterred by that minor detail, I went house hunting and found one. The savings and loan required four hundred dollars to assume an FHA loan and pay closing costs. My father loaned me the money.

Given time and some effort on my part, I would have eventually been able to afford the purchase of a house without the help of my father. It was my choice to proceed before I had the means to make the purchase.

When some people say they can’t afford something, it just means that they aren’t willing to wait until they can afford it. It’s a choice.

In my twenties, when I was first married and later divorced, I did very little to manage my money. I spent impulsively and took on a house payment and many small monthly installment payments. Soon I couldn’t afford a lot of things. Looking back on those years, I realize that I had enough money to afford what should have been the priorities in my life: food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and medical care without going in to debt. I actually should have been able to accumulate some savings during that time. But I didn’t set priorities or budget. I spent recklessly and let the threats of the bill collectors set my priorities for me. I made irresponsible choices.

A college classmate of mine had a father who worked two jobs so he could afford to send his children to college. He had worked two jobs all of his life in order to give his family a standard of living well beyond that which he could provide working a single job.

My classmate’s father could have easily chosen to work just one job and say he couldn’t afford to send his children to college. He could have waited for someone else to give his children a college education, his children could have paid their own way, or his children could have done without a college education.

Often when people say they can’t afford something, it really means that they are not willing to do what it takes to earn the money to pay for it. It’s a choice. It simply isn’t that important to them.

In my career as a commissioned salesman, I often worked with people who wouldn’t pay anything out of their pocket to win a sale or keep a customer even though it was in their self-interest to do so.

They said they couldn’t afford to spend money out of their pockets. They worked for the company; it was the company’s responsibility to pay all expenses related to customer acquisition and retention.

My colleagues had the means to pay for those relatively minor expenses out-of-pocket. They would have been rewarded many times over the small cost of their investment in additional commissions earned. Yet, they would not spend the money, because they believed it was someone else’s responsibility to do so. As employees, they felt entitled to company support. Rather than let the company off the hook, they did without the extra commissions. It wasn’t a matter of money but of principle. It was a choice.

This same company, for whom I worked, always cut back on office expenses near the end of the year. No pencils, paper, pens, envelopes, file folders, labels, etc. were to be purchased until the next calendar year. The home office said that there was no money in the budget. During that same period, our regional manager would fly in to visit our office, rent a car, occupy a hotel room, and use his expense account to purchase meals and drinks. Often the area vice president would do the same. My co-workers and I would complain to our local manager about what we considered extravagant spending considering the company told us they didn’t have enough money for copy paper. Our manager told us that while the office expense budget had run out of money, apparently the travel and expense budgets of top management had not. It wasn’t that the company was short of money. It had plenty of money, just none left in the office expense account. The company had made choices based on its priorities when it established the company budget.

A close friend was struggling financially due to a layoff. He made frequent complaints that he did not have enough money to pay for utilities, food, rent, etc. He struggled to adjust to a lower income and couldn’t afford everything he needed for his family. Feeling bad for him and having some extra cash, I offered to help out with some money each month until he could get his finances in order. Several months into my commitment, my friend mentioned that he was grateful that he had been able to continue with his cable TV subscription with premium channels and a membership to a fitness center. My wife and I had neither of these. We considered them luxuries. One of the reasons we could afford to help my friend out was that we did not spend on cable TV subscriptions and fitness center memberships.

Rather than helping with what we thought were essentials, we were actually subsidizing luxuries. My friend and his family, however, thought of these as necessities they had to have in order to enjoy life.

When some people say they can’t afford something, they are really saying they aren’t willing to do without something else. Again, it is a choice based on their priorities. My friend really wanted help to pay for his cable TV and fitness club membership. If he had put it to me that way, I would have laughed him off.

During a time when I was out of work and seeking employment, I literally ran out of money. Before I ran out of gasoline, I drove to the local plasma center and donated some plasma. Until I received that plasma money, I couldn’t afford to buy anything, no matter what the priority. I simply had no money. I spent part of those fourteen dollars of plasma money on gasoline so I could drive to job interviews and three dollars on a parking ticket I received while I was engaged at the plasma center. The last two dollars went for a watermelon which I shared with my girlfriend and her daughter. Within a few hours I was broke again. I soon found a job and have never been broke again.

Sometimes when someone says he can’t afford it, he actually means that he has no money. Being flat broke is usually a temporary phenomenon, however, remedied by time and effort. One can choose not to be broke.

My family wasn’t broke when I was a child asking for this and that. My parents had spending priorities and managed their money carefully—two of many reasons why we were never actually broke. I always had what I needed as a child. My parents made sure they could afford those things by admitting that they couldn’t afford others. They made choices.

When people tell me they can’t afford something, I don’t feel bad for them. I don’t feel guilty because I have what they say they can’t afford or because I have money in savings. I don’t feel that it is my duty to correct an inequity because none exists. I understand it for what it is—a choice. What they can’t afford just isn’t that important to them. And it never will be if they can get someone else to pay for it.

Copyright 2009 K.C. Knouse

K. C. Knouse is the author of True Prosperity: Your Guide to a Cash-Based LifestyleDouble-Dome Publications, 224 pages