With a budget like ours, you might think that we would say that we can’t afford a lot of things. While we talk openly about our limited finances, you won’t hear me say that I can’t afford something.
The phrase “I can’t afford” has always been an awkward one for me. I avoid saying “I can’t afford,” not because of what it reveals about our finances, but because it’s negative, makes me the victim, and solicits financial advice. There are psychological benefits of changing what you say.
It Has a Negative Connotation
When I hear the phrase “can’t afford,” it brings me back to middle school. I always cringed when mean kids would pick on kids who obviously had less than them, and say “at least I can afford ___.”
I came from a middle class family, but I always felt protective of the kids who came from poorer families. I didn’t care so much if people made fun of my off-brand shoes, but when less fortunate kids were teased with “you can’t even afford ___.” That really rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes kids are really mean.
It’s Passive, Not Active
Saying that you can’t afford something puts you in a passive position. You’re not in charge. Someone or something else is in control. You’re the victim.
Choosing not to spend money, on the other hand puts you in an active position. You are in control! It’s not your finances that are controlling you, but you taking responsibility for your money. By voicing how I choose to spend my money, I feel empowered instead of victimized by my finances.
I Don’t Want Financial Advice
When I hear others talk about financial problems, my mind immediately tries to solve them. I don’t always give unsolicited financial advice, but I usually think it. I’m not judging, just trying to solve problems and find solutions. If a friend complains “We just can’t afford ____,” then my mind will make a quick analysis of their spending to try to find a way for them to make room in their budget.
I usually don’t want others analyzing and prioritizing my spending to help me overcome problems. Avoiding phrases like “we can’t afford” keeps the financial advice at bay. No one can argue with what I choose and it doesn’t present a problem to solve.
What I Say Instead
I take an active role in my finances by saying what I choose. For example, before we got an amazing deal on smartphones, I would say “We don’t want to spend money on smartphones right now” instead of “We can’t afford smartphones.”
Other times I will list the alternative: “Going to Six Flags would be fun, but we would rather put more toward our student loans this month.”
If my kids ask for something that costs too much or that I don’t want to spend money on I will tell them “That costs more than I want to spend” or “Let’s see if we can find it at a better price.” I also try to help them weigh their choices and focus on goals.
Am I Alone?
I very well may be the only one who has an aversion to the phrase “I can’t afford.”
That’s fine. I’m a word person. The semantic difference between “I can’t afford __” and “I don’t want to spend money on ___” is very apparent to me. At the same time, I can see how people who don’t get so linguistically involved would say that they are essentially the same.
In addition to the linguistics, the psychology behind what we say is interesting to me. If we start speaking less passively, will we become a more active participant in our finances? Will taking responsibility through our words carry over into our actions?
- Does anyone share my aversion to saying “I can’t afford ___”? Why do you avoid it?
- Is there a difference to you between “I can’t afford ___” and “I don’t want to spend money on ___?”
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