I see many people ask for financial advice, both on the Internet and in real life. When the advice is given, the person will often say, “But I can’t do that,” in response. This happens particularly when it’s advice they don’t like. Just recently I read a post where the person was asking for advice about how to save for a house when it seemed like all of their money was going elsewhere. When the other posters started offering the standard advice to cut or reduce cable, stop eating out, stop spending on hobbies or other “fun” things, get a second job, etc., the poster fired back by saying, “I can’t,” to every single suggestion.
“I can’t cut cable. That’s our only form of entertainment.”
“I can’t stop eating out because we have such hectic schedules.”
“We can’t stop spending on our hobbies because they’re important to us.”
“I can’t use store brands because they’re all gross.”
“I can’t cut down on my clothes purchases because I need lots of clothes for work.”
“I can’t get a second job because I’m already so tired from the first job.”
Not being a terribly patient person at times, I wrote back and said, “Then you can’t have a house. If you’re spending everything you make and there’s nothing left to save, you’re never going to get that down-payment. The money has to come from somewhere and if you ‘can’t’ do anything to cut expenses or get extra income, then there’s never going to be a house.”
Well, the poster wasn’t thrilled with me and whined some more about how she just can’t do anything about her situation. The thread finally died because everyone else got tired of the whining and the refusal to consider helpful advice or see the difference between wants vs needs.
The whole thread really pointed out the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” “Can’t” means that you literally cannot do something. Whether it’s because it’s impossible or beyond your ability, you are unable to do the task. “Won’t” means that you will not do something. You can, but you choose not to for whatever reason.
When it comes to finance, there is very little that most people literally cannot do. Maybe you truly cannot buy that $100,000 boat today, but you probably can cut cable. It’s not like the cable company is going to come kill you if you cut them and it’s not like you can’t find some other way to occupy your time or your kids’ without it. Therefore, you can cut cable. If you choose not to for whatever reason, it’s not because you can’t, but because you won’t.
It’s the same for many other excuses. You can stop eating out because there are plenty of alternatives (learn to cook, make meals in advance, learn some no-cook recipes, or just make a sandwich). If you choose not to, it’s not that you can’t, it’s because you won’t. And on and on for everything from out of control hobby spending to getting a second job. You can do it, but you probably don’t want to.
People throw out “can’t” when they really mean “won’t.” It lets them off the hook. “Well, if I can’t do those things, it’s not my fault and I can still be a victim and blame everyone else for my situation.” Saying, “I can do that, but I won’t,” puts the responsibility on them. Now their financial trouble is their fault because they wouldn’t do what they needed to do. That’s not a fun place to be, so it’s easier to say, “I can’t” and trot out the excuses.
The next time you catch yourself saying, “I can’t,” stop and think. Can you literally not do this financial task? Or is it more like you won’t do it? If it’s the latter, ask yourself why. Is it too hard? Too scary? Too inconvenient? Figure out the problem and then find a way around it. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with “won’t” as long as you’re aware that it means things might not change. It’s okay not to cut your expenses, but you have to understand that it means things will stay as they are. If that’s the way you want them to be, then refusing to do things is fine. But if you want to change things, you have to stop saying, “can’t” and “won’t” and change to “I can and I will.”
(Photo courtesy of cooper.gary)