Are You Sick and Tired of Hearing “We Can’t afford _”?

Problem #48: What you should say instead of, “I Can’t Afford It”.

Are you the spender in the family? How many times have you heard your spouse say right before you drop some significant dough on a great deal, “Stop, we can’t afford that. You’re going to put us in the poor house!”

“Wait a minute!” You think to yourself, “We make good money. Why can’t we afford that?” That sounds like a lame excuse at times doesn’t it? In reality they should have blamed brought up the budget, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

I’ve offered that phrase as an excuse a time or two myself to the spenders in my family. But is it fair to simply answer with, “We can’t afford that”?

Quick answer – NO. Man-up, and give a fair response, not some off-the-cuff-I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-this-now excuse. It’s easier to brush aside the inevitable discussion than to go down the dark hole of budget discussions. But it’s better in the long run.

So, what should we say instead? And what does that phrase actually mean? Hint: it’s not necessarily about the money. This sounds like a PROBLEM to me, unless you like condescending retorts.

First What Does it Mean – “We Can’t Afford It”?

I can't afford it

So what does that phrase really mean? “We can’t afford that.” Think about it and in the meantime, let me offer a situation.

A family with several kids is at the grocery store. You notice that they have a cart full of great food – steaks, chicken, chips, fruit and vegetables. Then you overhear one of the kids ask, “Can I get this candy bar?”, as he begins to put it in the cart.

The Mom says, “No, we can’t afford that,” quickly squashing the optimistic request of an eager child.

The disappointed kid puts the candy bar back wondering why they have the money for broccoli but not for chocolate.

Wait a minute! Sure, they have a cart full of groceries, but they can’t afford a candy bar that cost $1.50?

So . . . what Mom (my wife) was really saying is: “That’s not on the grocery list, so we’re not going to buy that candy bar.”

While I understand the kid’s dismay and bewilderment (who wouldn’t want to buy a chocolate bar?), the Mom has a valid reason for dismissing the request so flippantly. She just didn’t explain it to the poor kid very well. As you might have guessed, this situation actually happens in our family, and I would venture to say it happens at your house too.

So for all of you who are wondering – there are two reasons (that I can think of) people (me and my wife) use that excuse – aside from the ease of being the parent and saying something to the effect of, “because I said so.”

They really can’t afford That – whatever That is.

Certainly there are things that we can’t afford.  I would love to be able to buy a Ferrari, but seriously, I can’t afford it. Even if I used all the money I have in all my bank accounts, I still would not be have enough money available to drop $200k on a car – even a car as awesome as that! (maybe a used one?) But I just don’t have that kind of money.

ferrari control panel

I would also like to own a fancy 100 foot yacht, but I truly can’t afford that either. And I’ve certainly never had anyone offer to give me a great deal on a slightly used, but in great condition, former millionaire’s yacht. Have you?

yacht I can't afford

So how many situations in our day-to-day lives fall into this category? I think it would be safe to say – none. Most of the time, when we are faced with a buying decision, we do have the actual funds available to pull the trigger on the purchase. So when we, or someone else offers the excuse, “I can’t afford that”, what they usually mean is the second reason for this excuse.

Which is . . .

It’s not in the Budget.

For most situations, and I’m pretty sure all the times I’ve used this excuse with my kids and my wife, what I meant was, I do have the money. I just don’t want to buy that. Whatever that is. So I took the easy way out, and said, “I can’t afford it.” When I should have said instead, “It’s not in the budget.”

I can't afford it usually means: It's not in the budget. Click To Tweet

So we do have the money. And we can afford it. We just have different priorities than the person making the request. Which is ok. But when you make a budget, it should involve your spouse. So you both agree on how you would spend your money.

All you have to gently say is, “It’s not in the budget.”

Then the spender will just hate the budget instead of you. No really, that’s how budgets get their bad rap. Well, that, and the fact that it takes work to maintain a budget. But at least it’s an honest answer, and not a cop-out.

Fix the Budget instead of ignoring the real problem.

To a spender, budgets seem to always be stifling those great deals and fantastic purchases.  The real issue is the budget categories and how much you allocated to each one. Perhaps you’re being unrealistic to expect your spouse to have only $5/month to spend however they want (fun money)? Or maybe that $200 set aside for that new outfit should be used for car repairs instead?  This is something you can and should work out – together.

Related: A budget is a plan to find money.

Agreeing on spending before-hand is critical to success with money. If you both are going in different directions, you’ll end up going nowhere. But once you make decisions on your budget categories and allocations, stick to it!

You can't expect financial success if you're both pulling in different directions. Click To Tweet

Later when the opportunity comes up to overspend, give a real answer that’s helpful. Because “We can’t afford it” sounds a lot like “because I said so” in the moment, and we all know how effective that answer is.

How do you handle the spender in your family? Or is it You?

Let me know in the comments, and if you enjoyed this post please share it.



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  1. Great post! Instead of I can’t afford that, I prefer “how can I afford that?”

    Now, that doesn’t apply to everything, I don’t spend a lot of money on material items. But sometimes I don’t have the cash to invest in something, so I get creative. #winning

    • That’s a great point Lance. You sound like an optimist.
      What can I do to get that “thing”, instead of , “I’ll never be able to . . . ”

  2. I definitely wasn’t the ‘spender’ in the last relationship I was in. I realized our differences in money-matters was mostly because I was of the delayed gratification upbringing and he wasn’t. One of the reasons we didn’t stay together was that we didn’t see eye to eye on money (as well as other things). I tend to ask, “do I need that” instead of “can we afford it”.

    • Dealing with differences of opinion when it comes to money issues can be tough, especially in a relationship. Sometimes other people are just wrong. 😉
      To quote Mr. Money Mustache, “punch yourself in the face, and try again.” but you can’t always say that – obviously.
      “Do I need that?” is another great question to ask.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Your intro reminded me of a true story of a family friend who took his family to a Toyota dealership and purchased a new Camry, and then when they stopped at McDonald’s on the way home he refused to order French fries saying, “We just bought a car, we can’t afford French fries!”

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