Can You Afford It?

Worried business woman sitting behind the desk with empty wallet© 2009 Brooke Allen
Originally published in International Family Magazine

It is important not to buy stuff you cannot afford.

I attended a presentation by a professor who talked about how, as a child, his Dad drove their cars into the ground even though their less successful neighbors purchased new ones every few years. His father said they could not afford new cars. The young man did not understand – they had enough money. His Dad said, “people afford what they want.” His father wanted him to go to college and that meant he could not afford new cars. His dad’s statement led to a career – Lowell Catlett is now Dean of the Agricultural Economics Department at New Mexico State University.

There is an infinite amount of stuff out there and even the wealthiest person cannot afford it all. To lust after things you cannot afford will make you unhappy. To buy stuff you cannot afford will make you broke.

There are different levels of how well you can afford what you want:

Level 0 – There is no way you can buy what you want.

Level 1 – Someone will lend you the money to buy what you want.

Level 2 – Your cash flow from what you are currently doing is sufficient to buy what you want.

Level 3 – The cash flow from the next best thing you could be doing is sufficient to buy what you want.

Level 4 – The interest on your savings is sufficient to buy what you want.

When I was a college student in 1970, nobody in their right mind should have lent me any money, and given that bankers then were in their right minds, they didn’t. Today, there is a huge industry devoted to getting people hooked on living at Level 1. These people think you should care about your Credit Rating, which is a mathematical score lenders use to determine if you can stay at Level 1 long enough to repay them. If you can’t cover your debts, you will discover that you have dropped to Level 0, even for things you have already bought, like a house or a car.

My parents started at Level 2, and they suggested that I want to be at Level 2 as well. They gave me $500 to start me out. My college lent me $1,000, but living at Level 1 was so scary that I paid that money back on my second installment. I’ve stayed at Level 2, or above, the rest of my life. Living at Level 2 used to be called “living within your means” before marketers convinced people that the ability to borrow money was a “means.”

A friend sends his son to private school. He makes enough money to do this without borrowing. I asked him if he would consider leaving his current job for another that pays less. He said he could not because then he could not afford the school. So, he can afford what he wants at Level 2, but he cannot afford it at Level 3 since he cannot afford to lose his job.

There are two ways to advance from Level 2 to Level 3. 1) Lower what you want enough so that if you lose your current job you can still afford what you want with the next best job available to you, 2) Advance to a higher paying job without increasing your wants.

Living at Level 3 allows you to accumulate wealth. This comes from saving the difference between the money you are receiving and what you are spending. At this point, you will view Credit Ratings in a different light – from the point of view of a lender.

You might even accumulate enough wealth so that you can live your life entirely from the money generated by your wealth. Then, you will be free to do anything you want as long as you do not start wanting things you cannot afford at Level 4. People who get to Level 4 live well in retirement.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner, was asked how he became so successful.[1] He spent his money to meet his needs, not his desires. He also worked very hard on increasing the value of his second best option (known to economists as “opportunity cost”). Charlie was 60 years old, and a multi-millionaire, before he bought his first new car. He lived at Level 4 before deciding that a new car smell was worth wanting.

Many of us have been living at Level 1 far too long, and are now in the process of dropping to Level 0. This is sad, particularly at a time when the second best option is also declining, in many cases to zero (unemployment).

There is a bright side.

We will learn how little we really need.

We will learn how much we need each other.

Before you want a thing, determine how much you really need it.


Then determine how well you can afford it.

[1] For this and more wisdom from Charlie Munger, see:

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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