You Can Afford Anything, But Not Everything.

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afford anything

A week or two ago, someone referred to this website as “Afford Everything,” which made me chuckle.

It also made me realize I should take a second to explain this blog’s cornerstone philosophy: You can afford anything, but not everything.

The idea behind Afford Anything is that each time you buy an item – a sweater, a smartphone, a tub of ice cream – you’re making a tradeoff. You’re stating that you’d rather have this sweater or smartphone instead of … something else.

Sometimes these choices are easy. We need electricity and running water. These take priority over everything else in our lives. But as we delve into discretionary spending, our choices get a little hazy.

When I was 19, I decided to spend at least a year traveling the world. I knew that this would demand serious tradeoffs.

For the next five years, I wore clothes from thrift stores. I rode a bicycle and buses instead of owning a car. I lived in a cramped apartment. I never dyed or highlighted my hair. I didn’t have a television, home internet, or a washing machine. I slept on a camping mat for a month before a friend gave me a free mattress.

When I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Egypt, many of my friends said, “I would love to do that, but I can’t afford it.”

But their hair is highlighted and their toenails are pedicured. Their clothes and furniture are new, they’ve just spent money on a car wash, and they’re trying the newest sushi hotspot tonight.

Please don’t misunderstand me – clothes and furniture are great things to spend money on, if that’s what you truly want.

But some people are unaware that every purchase they make is a tradeoff against something else. Every $1 you spend at a restaurant is $1 you can no longer spend traveling to Paris, throwing your dream wedding or investing in your business.

The key to “affording anything” is spending money in a way that reflects your priorities.

If your top goal is to cultivate your outer beauty, go for it. Buy the clothes and the makeup. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But if your life goals point in a different direction – if you want to launch your own bakery, climb out of debt, or study art in Italy – then ask yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to afford it.

Maybe you want a nicer house, an early retirement, or a seven-figure stock portfolio. What tradeoffs will you make to achieve those dreams?

You can afford anything. You just can’t afford everything.

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44 Responses to “You Can Afford Anything, But Not Everything.”

  1. Dollar D @ The Dollar Disciple
    20. Feb, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    In our lifetime, a vast amount of money will pass through our hands and after a few years, most people won’t even remember what they spent it all on.

    Identifying your priorities is not only the key to a good relationship with money, but it’s also critical for a fulfilling life!

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:58 am #

      @Dollar D — I like the way you phrased “a vast amount of money will pass through our hands” … well said! Trillions of dollars exchange hands every day.

  2. Money Infant
    20. Feb, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    I spent a similar amount of time (4 1/2 years) living much as you did so we could eventually move to Thailand. I also had many friends telling me “oh I wish I could do that” and when I said they could the reply was inevitably “there’s no way I could afford it”. Of course they made the same decisions your friends had made regarding “stuff” vs “experiences”. If you truly know what you want you will find a way to make it happen. How’s the saving of 100% of your income going?

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:55 am #

      @MoneyInfant — I can pretty much imagine those 4 1/2 years you saved to move to Thailand, and I can definitely imagine the reply you heard from friends when you did it. I think this is a common experience that a lot of long-term travelers share.

      The saving 100% is going great! January was a breeze, and February is shaping up to be the same way. Here’s my January update: I’ll post another update at the end of February. Thanks for asking! :-)

  3. Maggie@SquarePennies
    20. Feb, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    This is one of the great things about making choices. When you don’t have enough money to do everything (and very few do), you make choices. Having less money helps make priorities more clear. We choose to travel, so we spend less on clothes, food, eating out also. We don’t even have smart phones (the horror). But we have a lot of fun with road trips and even a few trips out of the country. We can afford it because we lead a fairly frugal life the rest of the time. We love it!

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:50 am #

      @Maggie — Good for you! Ten years from now, you’ll remember those road trips and those excursions outside of the country. You won’t remember that time you had to wait until you got home to check your email, because you couldn’t pull it up on your phone. :-)

  4. Pat Chiappa
    20. Feb, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    So well said. In our culture, it’s as though we don’t understand why we can’t have it all, and are unwilling to make the hard choices. Maybe we can’t focus, identify our true goals and put our attention on exactly what we do want.

    When credit was readily available in the form of home equity loans and the credit card companies decided to target kids as ripe consumers as soon as they were college bound – is it any wonder we all got a little confused?

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:47 am #

      @Pat — When the housing market tanked a few years ago, I remember saying to my boyfriend: “I guess a lot of people took out loans against their home to start a business.” He laughed, and replied that, statistically speaking, most people spent it on discretionary consumer goods. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that idea. There’s a part of me that still has a hard time believing it.

  5. femmefrugality
    20. Feb, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    I think a lot of people forget those things are choices. We get so accustomed to our lifestyle that we start thinking, “I can’t support my family (read: buy brand name clothes, go out to dinner, own a massive home with leather couches) AND travel the world.” It’s a paradigm shift. Like you said, instead of saying that, we can say, “I can either go to that Italian place tonight and buy my kids Abercrombie and Fitch, OR go see all those things I really want to see.”

  6. Serendipity
    20. Feb, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    Too often, people ask me how I’m able to save the amount I can on the amount I make. Like you, I’ve had to make sacrifices. Sometimes, the sacrifices I make seem like nothing compared to what some other people do and that motivates me to stay on task with my goals. This was a great article.

      20. Feb, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      @Serendipity – Exactly. When I think about the fact that the majority of our ancestors struggled to get enough to eat, any “sacrifice” that I make doesn’t seem so bad.

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:44 am #

      @Serendipity — Great attitude! The small sacrifices that we make are nothing in comparison to how the majority of people have lived. Our basic standards are already high. Even “rich” people in the 1800’s had no air-conditioning. It’s important to keep it all in perspective … that makes it easier, in many ways, to avoid wasting your money on things that aren’t important to you.

  7. fabulouslyfrugirl
    20. Feb, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    I think there are so many messages about what we “need” to survive that sometimes, even I loose sight of what my “needs” really are. If we really defined our needs by having food, shelter and clothing, then my needs have been met, ten fold and the rest if gravy.

    Like one of the commenters above wrote, sometimes we forget that we have a choice of how we choose to live our lives. Like you, we all have a choice to travel abroad for a year, or have our nails painted. It’s hard to have everything, all at once – I often wonder if it’s even possible.

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:37 am #

      @fabulouslyfrugirl — One of my readers emailed me a great quote from Oprah that says: “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”

  8. Monica
    20. Feb, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    This is such a wonderful article, and as you stated, we all make choices about what is important to us in life. It really does boil down to what goals you want to accomplish or what dreams you want to fulfill, and how you plan for it financially. I agree that if someone truly wants something, they will make the sacrifices needed to get it.

  9. BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog
    20. Feb, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    This is a great perspective and article. Awesome! It was liberating for me many years ago to realize that I was buying stuff I didn’t need, with money I didn’t have, to impress people I didn’t like!

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:41 am #

      @BusyExecutive — That’s the least fun type of spending there is! Thank goodness you realized it and put an end to it! :-)

  10. Momekh
    21. Feb, 2012 at 2:03 am #

    What a beautifully simple reminder!

    Thanks for sayin it like it is. A lot of people seem ‘caught up’ in this whole minimalism thing for example, because they don’t realize that maybe they’d actually enjoy a more ‘urbanized’ life.

    Very nice.

      21. Feb, 2012 at 3:33 am #

      @Momekh — Exactly. There’s no “ideal” level of spending or not-spending … there are simply tradeoffs. :-)

  11. Greg McFarlane
    21. Feb, 2012 at 3:22 am #

    One of the features that makes Afford-Anything so enjoyable to read (aside from its author being one of the few personal finance bloggers who can actually write) is that Paula starts with truths, rather than opinions. In the hands of someone else, this topic could easily have devolved into “anyone who decides to spend money on things I wouldn’t spend it on is profligate.”

  12. Jeffrey
    21. Feb, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    It’s funny to me that it doesn’t occur to most people how spending money is always a tradeoff against using it another way. It’s always hard for me to understand how someone driving a brand new car will tell me they can’t afford to go on a vacation.

    I’m conscious of the tradeoffs, and sometimes I even get a little too down on myself for getting off track with spending. It’s hard when you’re always asking “Should I be saving more?”

  13. bax
    21. Feb, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    That’s the phrase around our house. Well, that and “Who farted?” But only one of those two sayings helps us with our finances!

  14. Untemplater
    22. Feb, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    This is so true Paula! I can’t understand how some women throw thousands of dollars at designer handbags. I guess it’s worth it to them if it makes them happy but I have absolutely no interest in any of that. For me I’d much rather put that money towards plane tickets and sight seeing abroad! -Sydney

  15. After College Money
    01. Mar, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    This is great advice. For every purchase you make, you must sacrifice other things. Personal finance is kinda like being on a diet, in that regard. :-/

  16. driveway cleaning sydney
    29. May, 2012 at 12:58 am #

    I so love your title. Made me post it in my facebook as my status. Good Job!

  17. MakintheBacon$
    18. Jul, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    Great post! I wrote a post similar to this on my blog. It really annoys me when people say I want to do this, but I can’t afford it. But somehow they manage to afford other things. I think a lot of people have problems disciplining themselves to save for the wants. If they wanted it badly enough, they’d find a way to save the money for it.
    For everything big thing I want, I am well aware of the sacrifices I have to make for it, but it is so worth it in the end.

    • Afford Anything
      20. Jul, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      @MakintheBacon – I agree. I often catch myself thinking, “wow I’d love to buy … XYZ,” but then I ask myself, “Do it want it more than (a trip to Europe? a home renovation?), and the answer is always no.

  18. Andrea @ Take A Smart Step
    19. Sep, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    Love this post! Wish I had said it so well. I think many people get trapped into thinking they have to have what everyone else does, they unconsciously decide that they need to buy the house, car, clothes and everything else. Most of us do not take the time to stop and think about what we really want out of life and then make a plan to go for it! Making a plan and going for it can be too scary for many.

    • Afford Anything
      23. Sep, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      @Andrea — Exactly. A lot of people follow the script of what they’re “supposed” to buy, rather than thinking about how they really want to prioritize.

  19. Jake
    04. Feb, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    I’ve learned in my life this exact idea and like how you put it. Everything is a tradeoff. You can have practically anything you want, but you have to be willing to give up those things you don’t need in order to get there. I’m sure you made plenty of tradeoffs in order to be where you are today with rental properties, etc. Just a matter of how badly you want it.


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