4 Questions You'll Find More Useful than "Can I afford it?"

The word “afford” annoys me. A lot.

It came up in the comments on yesterday’s post, and for some reason stuck in my head all day. Stuck in my head enough that I decided I needed to talk through why I get so bugged when people drop “I can/can’t afford it” in a conversation about a purchase.

My first conclusion is the concept of “afford” bugs me because people act like there’s some strict math behind their declaration – they’ve done the full analysis, and there’s really no debating whether they can/can’t “afford” the thing.

But what analysis did they do?

Depending on the person, being able to afford it could mean:

  • It doesn’t zero out or overdraw their checking account.
  • It doesn’t max out their credit card.
  • They’ve budgeted for the purchase.
  • They’re paying cash for the purchase.

But because we don’t have a universally accepted test for the concept of “afford,” it’s meaningless to use it in a sentence.

Once I realized there’s no real math behind a person’s use of can/can’t afford it, I wondered more about what thoughts and feelings drive the use of the phrase.

I speak Spanish, so I turned there to see if the translation would shed light.

Now, I spoke Spanish all day, every day for two years of my life, and I couldn’t come up with a way to express the idea of “can/can’t afford it.”

So I turned to Google.

As a translation for “afford,” Google Translate offers permitirse.

Ah ha.

Permitirse means “to permit oneself.”

“I can’t afford it” becomes “no me lo puedo permitir.” I can not permit myself.

“I can afford it” becomes “me lo puedo permitir.” I can permit myself.

The Spanish translation of this concept of “afford” seems more honest: I can or can’t permit myself.

In other words, we want to attach some sort of mathematical validation to our use of “afford,” but it really comes down to whether or not we give ourselves permission – whether or not we feel justified.

We declare that we can afford something as a way of fending off judgment (from ourselves and/or others); we declare that we can’t afford as a way of eliciting pity (from ourselves and/or others).

Incidentally, that means can afford and can’t afford both find their roots in the shame we feel about money.

Yes, I might be tying too much emotion to a simple statement of fact. But pay attention to how “afford” gets used in the wild. Candidly and unemotionally? Or in frustration or defensiveness?

There are more useful questions than “Can I afford it?”

  1. What else could I buy with this money?
  2. How much would these dollars be worth if invested rather than spent today?
  3. What is the short-term value of the purchase?
  4. What is the long-term value of the purchase?

Let’s be practical. I’m not saying you have to answer these questions every time you have the urge to grab a coffee with a friend.

Although that would be pretty funny:

“Hey, want to grab a coffee?”

“Sure, just have to fill out this short questionnaire about the short and long term consequences of the purchase. Gimme two minutes.”

I’ve already told you Kate and I are selling stuff because we want to set ourselves up with stout little garage gym. Yesterday I unloaded the old treadmill for $600 (woohoo!). Now the cash is sitting in an envelope in the kitchen, and I’m already mentally spending it on these or this or this.

But: I own the purchase. It’s not that I “can afford” it. I’ll buy the equipment having fully acknowledged the costs, such as:

Not paying off a portion of my highest interest debt. Which means, in effect, that I’m financing the new gym equipment at the rate of my highest interest debt. Put that in my pipe and smoke it, huh?

Not putting the money in the market, where it would theoretically be worth around $1,200 ten years from now (if it earned around 7% per year) and throw off an annual income of $48 (according to the 4% Rule).

Not using it to buy any number of other things on our wants list.

These are the costs. If I value the benefits of the gym equipment more than the costs, I’m better off spending it this way. If not, I’m not. “Afford” has nothing to do with anything, and strikes me as a useless concept.