How to afford anything (but not everything)

You can have anything you want — but you can’t have everything you want. That’s the lesson I learned from a recent conversation with my cousin. And that’s the lesson photographer Ken Rockwell imparts in an essay that explains how to afford anything.

Our ability to buy expensive toys has nothing to do with how much money we do or don’t earn. Like everything in life, it has everything to do with how well you use what you have.


What I’ll describe has always worked for me. I hope it helps you. Everyone’s situations are different, but hopefully my skinflint lifestyle will give you the idea. This is all about prioritization and not wasting what you do have, so if you prioritize differently or enjoy spending money on something I consider wasteful, go right ahead.

Rockwell says that it’s important to understand the difference between cheap and frugal. As we’ve discussed at Get Rich Slowly before, the cheapest option isn’t always the best. Sometimes the most expensive choice actually costs less in the long run. Cheap means focusing on price above all else; frugality means seeking value for your dollar.

In his essay, Rockwell provides real-life examples of how he’s made choices to save money so that he can afford anything he wants (especially cameras). Some of his anecdotes are funny. Some are inspiring. They’re all great examples of how to get rich slowly. Here are a few of his tips:

  • It’s important to prioritize. Half of being able to afford what you want is to spend your money on what you really want.
  • As Elizabeth Warren emphasizes in All Your Worth [my review], one of the best ways to be able to afford small expenses is to economize on large expenses. Rockwell says that this means never buying a new car. It also means buying less house than you can afford.
  • Learn to practice patience and diligence. “When I buy a used car or camera,” Rockwell writes, “I may spend months looking until the perfect sample appears. When it does, I jump all over it, but if it doesn’t, I don’t worry.”
  • Don’t get sucked into new luxuries. Luxuries have a tendency of becoming necessities.
  • Don’t worry about what you own. “How rich you are is determined by how much money you have, not by what you own. What you own is how much you’ve given away to others!”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a deal, says Rockwell. Last spring I shared tips from a reader who uses haggling to save big bucks. Another GRS reader e-mailed me yesterday with a similar story.
  • Avoid addiction, including addictions to caffeine, nicotine, and television. “Watching television makes you stupid,” Rockwell says. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do know that since I’ve given it up, I’ve accomplished things I never dreamed possible — such as building this site.
  • “If you really want something, buy it, or wait until you can. Don’t buy something that isn’t what you really want.”

“Most people are too stupid to be poor,” says Rockwell’s brother. He means that most of us are unwilling to make sacrifices now in order to have the things we really want in the future. Instead, we fritter our money away on stuff that doesn’t even matter, stuff that brings us little or no value. We settle.

To be able to afford the important things, you must be willing to give up others. Or, as Dave Ramsey puts it, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

[Ken Rockwell: How to afford anything, submitted via e-mail by Dan K.]

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