“We can’t afford that.” I’ve said it. It could be a new flat screen television, or even a half gallon of Blue Bell ice-cream, but it doesn’t matter; this conversation has come up over and over again in the last 9 months that we have lived together.
Paul stops me. “Yes, we can afford it. We just don’t want to.” He goes on to explain that while he was growing up, his family went through periods of poverty, and he does not ever want to experience that again. By me repeating the mantra “We can’t afford that”, he feels like he is experiencing that again with having to move because of not being able to afford their home, hand-me-down clothes, cokes only on special occasions (like on a rare airplane ride to Oklahoma where he and his siblings must have asked the stewardesses for over 20 cokes), and daydreaming about the day when he can get a great paying job and purchase the things that he wants…like this day.
It’s a huge realization for me. He is right; we can afford the things that I keep saying are beyond our reach. We just don’t want to, because we choose to prioritize our spending in other areas. But why did it take so long for me to come to this conclusion?
After some more thought, I figured out why: I have been imposing a psychological feeling of poverty on myself in order to squirrel away money into savings. I suppose it’s the concept seen on many personal finance blogs of “living like you are in college” instead of succumbing to lifestyle inflation as your salary increases over the years. Only this seems to be to the extreme.
People in impoverished situations find themselves only thinking about a few vital things. If you are impoverished, you are working with a very tight (or nonexistent) budget, you are living paycheck to paycheck, and you are prioritizing your purchases around what you need to survive: food, minimal clothing, heating/air conditioning (we live in Houston, where it is a necessity to have A/C in August and September at least), and shelter. All else is fluff. So by me thinking like an impoverished person, I see all of the rest as fluff as well, and prioritize mainly on necessities. Because we are not impoverished, there is extra money that I automatically deposit into savings accounts leaving us very little buffer between our bills and extra money in our checking account. I don’t really see this money going into savings, so it reinforces the psychology of poverty in my head (at the end of the month, we may have $20 left in our checking account). Thus when I say that we can’t afford something based off of our checking account, I’m not actually lying because it does not fit into the boundaries of our budget and the near-empty checking account that we keep.
This is not a recent development in my life; as a child instead of playing Barbie, doctor, or trying to get into my mother’s makeup, I used to go out to an abandoned calf shed in the back of our barn and pretend that I was homeless. That’s right—and as if this self-imposed financial stress was not enough, I created a family that was dependent on me. I would use the JCPenny Christmas book and the weekly grocery store sales flyers, and make up scenarios such as my rich sister giving us $300 for Christmas. The back of my kindergarten diary (yes, I have been writing that long!) has a primitive excel sheet detailed in crayon with lines, columns, and expenditures. I would budget in the $300, look through the catalogues, and allocate our spending in accordance with our needs (blankets, food, etc.) (and of course a few wants like coloring books). It was all very methodical…and admittedly a little weird.
In case you were wondering, this technique works very well. If you have a problem with spending too much money, or need to squirrel away your own reserves, I suggest trying it out. But have I taken this too far? I think I knew the answer was yes when Paul had to explain to me that we can, in fact, afford things, and explained the difference between not having the money for something, and not wanting to spend the money on something. In other words, I created a pretty good world of poverty for myself.
Have you played any financial mind games with yourself, and what are the results? Perhaps you pretend like you don’t have money in a certain account so that you don’t spend it, or perhaps you enjoy daydreaming about what you would do if you had won the lottery.