My 8 year old son recently asked me whether we could afford to buy something or do something he wanted. I couldn't really answer him.
On the one hand, yes. We could afford it. Objectively, it wasn't a lot of money. We would still keep a roof over our heads, and eat for the next month, if we spent this money. It wouldn't really cause harm. Is that a good metric for whether you can afford it?
On the other hand, no. We couldn't. It was a big enough expense that it would have pushed us over our self-imposed spending limit for the month. It wasn't an emergency or anything so important that NOT spending the money would cause harm, either. Is that the right metric?
I eventually settled on telling him we couldn't get it yet, but might do it next month*. Which is fine, I guess, and we are trying to teach him that it's okay to wait for things. But I had a weird reaction to the question of whether we could afford something, because it's a concept that is fraught with discomfort. We come up with lots and lots of ways to get around saying that we can't afford something, however we happen to define that for ourselves.
Why? Why are we afraid to simply say no we can't, in fact, afford something? With no other explanation given. It should be enough, right? We shouldn't have to equivocate with friends and family and give them a (possibly made-up) reason. Living within your means shouldn't require an explanation, and those closest to us should be glad that we are. And normalizing being clear about your limits and boundaries helps us all and reduces the 'keeping up with the Joneses' effect. It's fine to have other priorities, whether that's paying down debt or living smaller or investing more or anything else. But saying no to things that other people are doing also brings with it the sense that maybe you're judging others for their choices; maybe you are rejecting them, personally; maybe you're just no fun; maybe you are just not living right if you claim you can't afford something - surely you should be able to if everyone else can so what's wrong with you?
I think this is one of the barriers that keep us from having a healthy relationship with money. It is one of the ways that we give it too much power. If you're worried about how you're going to pay the credit card bill, but you can't see a way out of having a high credit card bill because you "have to" incur all these expenses you don't really want to incur but you say yes because you can't say no, then your money controls you, rather than you controlling it as a tool to get you where you want to be.
It's okay to not consume, it's okay to not give in to the pressure that there always needs to be more, that everything needs to be new all the time, that things equal love and that if you were really a successful grownup you would want all of this too.
*naturally, he forgot all about it