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When Is It Okay To Say, “I Can't Afford It"?


When is it okay to say, "I can't afford it?" Well, the simple answer is every time it’s true, which is probably WAY more often than not, right?

I know that this is still the case for me personally, even though I've been out of debt for over 10 years now.

So if it's true for me, then it's probably true for you too, maybe you just need a little encouragement in learning how to say it or say it more often.

Growing up in the 1980s, “I can’t afford it”, was a phrase I remember hearing a lot. You see, I grew up in an era before credit cards and "debt" were as widely marketed, accepted and used as they are now.

So, I heard "I can't afford it" ALL THE TIME.

Come to think of it, while I'm writing this, I can’t remember the last time I heard a fellow American utter the phrase, “I can’t afford it”. It actually seems to have disappeared from our vernacular almost altogether.

As a financial coach, I've seen the destruction the disappearance of this phrase has wrought, especially over the past decade. 

It seems the departure of this particular phrase not-so-mysteriously coincides with the pervasiveness of a nasty little thing we call the "D" word.


The "D" Word

Debt has become so widespread and easy to get that, when faced with a purchasing decision, the default response for most of us today is, “Heck, why not? I'll put it on the card. I can just pay it off later”.

 We say this instead of what we really should say which is, "I can't afford it".

 That would keep us out of so much trouble.

 Both the availability of debt and the willingness of people to take it on, have become problematic.

 They have encouraged a culture of an almost enthusiastic acceptance of debt as a normalized means of purchasing just about everything.

 And we've seen how this acceptance has eroded the "old school" virtue of delayed gratification, especially when it comes to household finances.


The "Old Fashioned" Way

So, whereas people in earlier generations determined to work, save and then carefully purchase the furniture to fill their homes for example, now the default position of most families is "buy it now on credit" and pay for it (plus heaps of ridiculous interest) later. 

I have to admit, I definitely fell into this trap when I was younger and I paid plenty of what Dave Ramsey calls "stupid tax" because of it. 

In fact, my graduation from college and entrance into the corporate workforce saw me sucked right into the debt-adoring vortex that is the American marketing culture. 

I "did" all kinds of debt.

I leased (or got fleeced by) a brand new car and bought a condo, filled it with new furniture and used debt like it was  some sort of fat inheritance check to finance it all.

So you're not alone, I did all the really stupid stuff too.


The Answer

The obvious answer is to completely reject debt and to learn instead say, "I can't afford it." 

In fact, you've probably figured out by now that this blog exists in part to help you change your mindset about debt altogether.

We want for you to start seeing it in the negative light (or absence of light) it deserves.

And, as you can imagine when it comes to handling money, this kind of change usually happens slowly and incrementally.

As part of the process, one of the first things we do is to interrupt all buying impulses by encouraging the creation of an itemized budget.

The budget will tell you explicitly when you can and can't afford it.

The budget will never lie to you, unless you first lie to it by putting in bad numbers. So, trust the budget, it's your friend.

This first pass at producing a written budget is usually somewhat painful and often ushers in a jolting reality check.

I know it was certainly jolting for me the first time I did one.

In coaching new clients, I find it astounding that this initial budgeting exercise is often the first time they see that their monthly spending is actually greater than their monthly income, often by thousands of dollars per month. Unsettling is an understatement. 

By the way, if you’re new to budgeting, you can download our free budgeting forms here to help you get started.


The Truth Revealed

If you're not yet on a budget, go grab some free forms and get the party started...


Up to this point, most of our students have had nothing to help them gauge what their actual monthly spending was, other than a vague and foggy "feeling" about what was in their checking account.

The first budget helps them begin to see just how much a this process will help them gain control of their money. 

After a few months of budgeting, they will often even say, "I actually feel like I got a raise". 

This is because they started giving every dollar a job instead of wondering where it went. It turns out that the budget helps more of those dollars "stick around".

Again, I was a poster child of this kind of behavior, so I can empathized with both the shock of this reality and the potential dread of starting this budgeting cycle. 

But it's so worth it to get past the initial negative emotions and on to greater traction toward the elimination of debt and beyond.


"I Can't Afford It"

In most cases, when we write a first budget, there is "more month left at the end of the money", as they say.

And when the budget numbers don't add up, we start to encourage the use of the phrase “I can’t afford it” for certain categories, even if it's only temporarily.

This suggestion is sometimes met with some thinly veiled resistance at first. 

I believe a big reason for this resistance is that our marketing culture has tried to kill that phrase and make it an almost shameful thing to say. 

"I can't afford it" has actually become somewhat offensive, even as a thought for some people.

In reality, there is almost no limit to what we can "obtain".

Thanks to the extension of "credit" to anyone who can fog a mirror, we're able to buy just about anything we want.

But the truth is, anytime debt is used as the vehicle of purchase, it's just delayed mental anguish. The principal, plus interest will be there after the thrill of that purchase is gone.


No Shame

I'm here to tell you that is no shame in saying that you can't afford something. 

In fact, it's a sign of great maturity. 

The willingness to delay gratification is actually a sign of adulthood. I agree with Dave Ramsey when he says, "children do what feels good, but adults devise a plan and follow it."

Here, in our "zero debt" community, we encourage each other to eliminate debt. 

The truth is that you probably can't afford it and here, the truth is always okay. It may not be fun and it may not be popular.

But we've all seen where "fun" and "popularity" have gotten us (yes, including me).

We care about encouraging people to deal in reality. The reality is that debt is absolutely killing our culture and our people. Just look at the divorce statistics related to money problems.

Plus like I mentioned before, not being able to afford something may also just be a temporary set of circumstances.

Once we drop the debt and have an emergency fund, that almost always opens up lots of possibilities for being able to afford things you want that you can ACTUALLY pay cash for.


"Act Your Wage" 

There’s a Dave Ramsey billboard I used to see around the Atlanta area that said “Act Your Wage”. I often reflect on the many thousands of people who saw this billboard and the varying reactions the billboard elicited.

Generally speaking, I’ve seen some people love Dave's "in your face" approach and some that are deeply offended by it.

Personally, I’ve always liked Dave’s brand of confrontational coaching because I knew he was talking to the fool in me and I had gotten to the point that I wanted to completely eradicate that dysfunctional, out of touch, daydreamer. 

The fool in me wandered aimlessly into a $43,000 consumer debt mess that turned my life into an awful cycle of absolute misery.

He didn’t want to look at the reality that putting a bunch of music gear I "needed" on a HELOC (Home Equity Line Of Credit) was quite literally destroying my life. This "fool" guy had to go.

Fortunately, the fool in me met these debt freedom principles and I was able to start saying, “sorry, I can’t afford it” with both comfort and ease.


The Encouragement 

This part may sound harsh, but it's meant as a loving wake up call and something that we already know to be true.

Many times our worst enemy is this "fool" of ours that is staring at us in the mirror. And the question I pose to you is, what has your fool done for you lately?

I’ll bet your fool had something to do with a purchase at the mall or at The Home Depot that you couldn’t actually afford. Oh you did that, too? You put "the thing" on the card in a small fit of hope that somehow the funds would appear at some distant fuzzy point in the future to pay it off.  


It Just Makes Matters Worse

And what does your enemy do every single time you make a decision like that?

He sells you into a just little more slavery. Apart from piling on more general fret and worry about your finances, you’ll now have to work extra hours. 

You'll have to do extra jobs and maybe sell some of your stuff to pay the principal and interest. Thanks dude?!

So, all that to say the next time you're tempted to put something on that credit card I urge you to think about who you’re serving. 

Is it your new-found wisdom or your old foolishness?

Hopefully it will be your new-found wisdom backed up by a very solid and accurate monthly written budget.


Debt Is A Thief

In life, we must define our enemies to be able to conquer them.

We have to begin to see that debt is an enemy.

Debt is a thief. Think of the money you earn and the hours and effort you spend to earn it.

Those interest charges are literally robbing you of your very life.

Have you ever thought about it that way? Have you ever thought of debt as robbing you of your time/life/energy? 

That was a helpful revelation for me.

When I started looking at how I spent my time (energy) to earn money and then what I spent that money (energy) on.

It REALLY starts to unwind the illusion debt lures you into. How much of your precious time (energy) is wasted earning dollars that pay worthless "interest"?

Do you feel like you just got robbed?


Your Money Or Your Life? 

How we learned the art of saying "no" while eliminating $43,000 worth of debt.

The book, “Your Money Or Your Life” by Vicki Robin was the catalyst that really started me thinking about money as time or life energy I was spending for all my "stuff" including my debt.

It seems elementary I know, but consuming the idea in this format opened my eyes in a very new way.

Fortunately, the "8 Steps To Erase Debt" process had already primed my brain for thinking this way, but her book took it all to another level of understanding and implementation. 

“Your Money Or Your Life” encouraged me to dig deeper into this vein of thought. It will help you ask, "what am I spending my working hours doing for this "stuff"? 

To whom is all that hard earned fruit going?"

She encourages you to shift your perspective ever so slightly from looking at over all dollar amounts in abstraction. 

Instead she encourages the question, “what will this cost me in terms of "life-spend" to earn those dollars?"

I can't recommend this book enough. It will help you shift your mindset in amazing ways!


Along those lines, if you’re looking for some resources to get started getting out of debt, you can download our free budgeting forms here. Also, if you’re in a place where you’re ready to kick your debt in the teeth, you can download our free “8 Steps To Eliminate Debt” guide here.


Can I Actually Afford This?

Wherever you are in your journey, I urge you to look at every purchase you make and ask yourself, “can I actually afford this?” (rather than, "Can I afford the monthly payments?").

Once you’ve gotten a budget and a plan to eliminate your debt, it will become a much easier question to answer. And, most times the answer will be, “I can’t afford it”, at least for now. 


The 8 Steps To Obliterate Your Debt:

This is the blog post that outlines the 8 steps I followed to eliminated $43,000 in debt in 2.5 years.
And whether this is your first or thousandth time on the blog, I want to make sure you have this “8 Steps” framework that ALL of our content is centered around. 
These are the steps I personally followed to obliterate $43,000+ of debt in 2.5 years
Maybe your number is bigger, maybe it’s smaller. Either way the principles are the same and I want you to have them.
0. Stop All Retirement Investing (Until Step 4)
2. Starter Emergency Fund of $1000
3. Eliminate Debts Smallest To Largest (a.k.a The Debt Snowball)
4. Full Emergency Fund of 3-6+ Months’ Expenses
5. Invest A Minimum of 15% Income Into Retirement Accounts (and increase savings rate to 50%+ if possible)
6. College Funding (if applicable)
7. Pay Off The Home Mortgage
8. Build Wealth, Serve, Be Ridiculously Generous And Go FI (Financial Independence)!
I’ve created a simple, easy to follow guide that you can use as your foundation as you navigate the absolute annihilation of your debt forever.



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When You Need More Help

And again, if you’re looking for some resources to get started, you can download our free budgeting forms. Also, if you’re in a place where you’re ready to kick your debt in the teeth, here's the link to our free “8 Steps To Erase Debt” guide for you to use as your foundation.
To your freedom,
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click & make a purchase, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps keep Zero Debt Coach up and running. Read my full disclosure policy.

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