For years, I thought “I can’t afford it” meant someone was barely scraping by financially, with a little leftover after paying for food and rent. Then a client who’d said she couldn’t afford to pay me more than $50 an hour asked to have a meeting at her house. It was 4,000 square feet, nearly new, with House Beautiful decor - a palace compared to the apartment I had at the time.
She wasn’t lying or trying to cheat me, I later realized. Her phrase had no relationship with overall wealth or poverty. Instead, it connected to her mental accounting. We all have thinking compartments into which we slot various expenditures, such as regular household and lifestyle costs and then discretionary ones. Or personal vs. business expenses. In any case, this client had little left to spend in the compartment into which my services fell. This meant nothing at all about the size of her other mental boxes or about the total amount of money at her disposal.
Here, “can’t afford it” means roughly, “My priorities are such that I don’t have that amount to spend in its category.” But that’s not necessarily what it means in every situation.
“Can’t afford it” turned out to have another meaning in an instance where a potential client asked me what publicity services I could offer her for a couple of hundred dollars. In the context of our discussions over this, it seemed clear that she came up with that amount because she was on a very tight startup budget. A month later, she got back to me and said she’d decided to hire a traditional PR firm, paying a retainer of more than a thousand dollars a month. I was shocked speechless.
Here we’d have to say that an explicit or implicit “can’t afford more than that” signifies that someone’s mental spending gate hasn’t opened yet. They’re not convinced that the item in question is worth what is being asked - or worth any money at all. It means “I’m not interested in spending on that” or “You haven’t convinced me to pay that kind of money.” Again, you should not assume it has anything to do with the actual funds at the person’s disposal.
In other cases, “can’t afford it” is the opening gambit in a bargaining game people habitually play - not because they need to, but because they relish that kind of sparring. It means, “Let’s negotiate.” Or “You need to lower your price.” We’ll get to that maneuver in the next section.
In still other instances, “can’t afford it” is meant as a gambit to close off discussion. It’s a manipulative move to try to escape freely undertaken obligations. Once I was owed more than a thousand dollars for an article I’d written under contract to a magazine. The article was typeset in the next issue and at the printer ready to roll off the presses when the editor called me and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re having financial troubles and we can’t afford to pay you.”
What followed seems kind of comical in retrospect, but that month, I really needed that thousand dollars. So I showed up at the office of the magazine and demanded a check right then and there. I took that check to the magazine’s bank, where the teller shook her head sadly and said there wasn’t enough money in the account to cash the check. “But,” she added, “if you go to the branch on High Street and see the teller named Francine, you can get paid.” To this day, I don’t understand how one teller could payout on a check and another not, but when I went to see Francine at the other branch, I did get the money the magazine owed me. The money was available, but they were prioritizing other expenses.
In any event, never take “I can’t afford it” at face value. I don’t mean you should lean in on people to browbeat, humiliate or challenge them - not unless they’re blatantly lying to get out of paying what they owe. I am talking about how to understand the phrase in your own mind. Simply: Do not jump to conclusions when you hear it. It is not some kind of indubitable, final fact. Certainly don’t rush to lower your price or forgive debt because someone has said it.
In the next lesson, learn what it means (or doesn’t mean) when someone asks for a special deal.