Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What Does “Afford” Mean?

This is a “particular personal vexation” of mine. Our firm administrator just crunched the numbers to show me what financial effect of increasing my 401k contributions. And I said “Well I need to increase the amount I contribute.” And his reply was “If you can afford it.” What does that mean in America? How can I say that I cannot afford it when I can afford eating out for lunch every day? Or occasionally spend $4 on beverage from Starbucks? Or buy suits for work that cost several hundred dollars (speaking of very annoying things)? I live such a life of excess, but that is another blog. When I think of people who cannot afford something, I think of people who literally will not be able to buy food or pay for shelter as a result of the expenditure.

I think my annoyance at the use of the word “afford” began when I was a nanny in 2000. I was paid about $425/week (I paid taxes in cases you were wondering), provided with a two bedroom/two bathroom apartment, a car for any nanny duties, and a gym membership. Oh, keep in mind that I only worked Monday through Friday for about four to five hours a day. It was a fantastic set-up in many ways.

One day the mother was home and expressed to me that she wished she could have afforded to stay at home. I almost spit the water I had just sipped across the room. In addition to what they paid me to play parent, they had an expensive country club membership and TORE DOWN a nice brick house in Buckhead to build their current very nice and very large home. The mother routinely received deliveries of unattractive and expensive antiques (like a $10,000 table that didn’t even have chairs or an $8,000 clock). Oh, did I mention that they owned the house next door to them as well? And it sat empty for over a year! They wanted complete control over who lived there. Needless to say, I found it ludicrous to think that this family could not have “afforded” for the mother to stay at home with their daughter. I think, for whatever reason, she used that notion to justify her absence in her daughter’s life.

I’ve been stressed out lately with buying wedding and shower gifts and other unplanned for expenditures ($309 yesterday for that dumb little sticker on my tag), and I’ve caught myself saying “I just can’t afford this.” That’s not true because technically I can “bear the cost” of these things. Of course, it’ll mean I’m not saving (or even worse—dipping into my small savings) or I’ll have to give up something else—like going to lunch with coworkers. I think the more apt expression of what I mean would be “This doesn’t fit into my budget.” I rarely hear people say this, but I am trying to learn how to do so.

Am I just drawing a distinction without meaning?

p.s. Another discouraging use of “afford” is when Christians say they cannot “afford” to tithe. And to be honest, I felt that way when I first started working and did not tithe regularly. I would miss church and then “get behind” and all of a sudden I would “owe” an amount that I simply felt like I could not afford. That’s why now the first thing I do when my online payroll deposit clears is pay my tithe online. I like the idea of that coming first, and I’ve been amazed by how after a few months, I did not miss the money. It is yet another way that God shows me His faithfulness.


Jordan said...

Nice entry. Come to think about it there are tons of things that we so willingly pay for yet don't hesitate to ask if its a necessity.
You are drawing a good distinction with great meaning.
I like how you tied tithing in there, because this whole idea of ownership sometimes owns us but the purpose of tithing is to show that the real person in charge of everything in our lives, including our financial standing, is God.

Larry said...

Sadly, I can see many Christians placing tithing into the "I'll pay it later category" rather than the "necessary to pay now" one. It's interesting that you make note of how there are so many things that we buy yet we, as a culture, complain that we can't afford other things. 97% of the things I spend my money on are not necessities in any sense of the word.

Yet, God has called us to support His church and tithing is one of the only things I use my money for that is necesary. Ever since I began my commitment to tithe the full 10% every month, I have felt God's blessings in so many ways. Yet, I still feel the sting of sinful idolatry every time I write the check to my church. It's one of those areas I am constantly seeking God's help with.

Great post! :)

Aaron said...

I believe that most people have a skewed sense of what it means to be able to "afford" something. To most people, borrowing the money while still maintaining their monthly payments means they can afford something.

Too many times I hear people state "IF ONLY I made a little more money." Quite frankly, I believe I could sufficiently live on the amount I make right now. I believe that more money = more problems. If you earn more money, you will find a way to spend that more money, not save it.

I don't need a truck payment.
I don't need a motorcycle payment.
I wish I could say I don't need a house payment! :)

I could have easily purchased a vehicle that I could have paid in full -- just as I could easily not have purchased a motorcyle at all. The motorcycle is almost paid for. The truck is too.

It blows my mind how the "average American" can have $8k in credit card debt. HOW? If I had $20 that I didn't necessarily need, it's worth more to my Church than it is for me to goto the movies tonight.