Affordability

I’m careful not to say I can’t afford things, because I have a pretty well-paid job and my husband has a very well-paid job. A lot of our friends are doing low-paid nonprofit work, grad school, etc. and have much lower incomes than ours.

Most of the things people talk about not affording are not literally things they can’t afford. When we say we can’t afford something, we usually mean, “There’s something else I would rather spend that money on.” Which is a perfectly reasonable choice to make.

(Some of my clients are truly poor, in that they don’t have $200 to bail themselves out of jail and don’t know anyone willing to lend them $200. Bail is pretty much the most essential expense there is—if you can’t bail yourself out, you lose your job, housing, and belongings. I think holding such people in jail is usually a stupid use of the government’s money.)

Jeff and I are almost the only ones in his family that don’t vacation in Italy, which is weird because we can “afford” more than the electrician and the schoolteacher, but we choose not to. Half our money goes to charity, and the rest goes to taxes, raising our kid, and buying a house. There’s not a lot of spending money left over, and that’s fine, because we chose all of this. But it still makes it awkward to go out with friends and be the cheapest ones there, or to turn down invitations to do things with them that cost money.

When I worked at a charity, I heard a lot about “fixed incomes.” Charities want to suggest donation amounts that sound reasonable to you. The charity I worked for had a default mailing with checkboxes for $15, $35, and $100 (with $35 in bold). If the algorithm thought you were likely to donate more, presumably based on your previous donations, you would get a mailing suggesting $100, $500, or $1000. Sometimes the algorithm guessed wrong, and we would get angry letters from people asking if we thought they were rich or something. These letters often mentioned being on “a limited income” or “a fixed income.” I was never sure what that meant, since most of us have an income that is fixed rather than being . . . constantly in flux? Infinite? I don’t know what the alternative was supposed to be. I think they often meant it as “retired on a pension that’s smaller than my income used to be.”

When I was first hired at that charity, I told them I didn’t want their 401(k) contributions because I wanted them to keep the money. The woman from HR raised her eyebrows and asked if I was independently wealthy. I was pretty upset at the idea that she didn’t believe I would donate to the charity unless I had more money than I knew what to do with. But that was her idea of who could “afford” to pass up the $400 or so that they were going to give me.

I don’t mean any of this as a complaint. I’m very lucky to have what I have. I’m just noticing the way the concept of “affording” is not always the same thing, and how that leads to strange situations. A similar thing happens with having “not enough time” to do something—we usually mean a budgeting choice, rather than an actual impossibility.

I’m going to quote Thomas Cannon again:

The self-described poor man’s philanthropist, he gave away more than $150,000 over the past 33 years, mostly in thousand-dollar checks, to people he read about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch who were experiencing hard times or who had been unusually kind or courageous. . . .

Mr. Cannon supported his wife and himself, their two sons and his charitable efforts on a salary that never topped $20,000 a year. . . . When he retired from the postal service in 1983, he and his wife lived in virtual poverty on his pension. “We lived simply, so we could give money away,” he told the Times-Dispatch this year. “People say, ‘How can you afford it?’ Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things.”

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