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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Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
11 years ago

He’s spot on about television. I know the benefits of quitting TV but still have trouble doing it. It’s really really tough. I agree on the prioritizing–for me it’s probably about traveling. That’s what I’d like to do more of. More than going out to dinner or having snazzy clothing. Traveling is my “camera,” so to speak.

Studenomics
Studenomics
11 years ago

I believe in prioritizing and sacrificing in order so that I could travel at least twice a year. For me travelling means going somewhere warm to avoid the cold Canadian winter’s. In order to do so I must sacrifice a few things like going out every weekend, eating out all the time, and consuming caffeine on a daily basis. I feel it is all worth it in the end, especially considering I will be in Jamaica in 2 weeks while all my friends will be complaining about how cold it is.

Sammy
Sammy
11 years ago

“Most people are too stupid to be poor” — your explication of this quote still doesn’t help me understand what the heck it means! My grandma used to say “what you don’t have, you can do without”. I have found this is true for a lot of material possessions, but immaterial things like an education, or health and well-being related things like clean water–these are worthy of sacrifice to attain. One problem seems to be the illusion that many people have that they are richer materially than they really are. Once reality sets in, it frees the mind to adapt… Read more »

A. Dawn
A. Dawn
11 years ago

We all are impulsive buyers sometimes. If we hold it off for a couple of days to think it over before buying it, chances are high that we will not buy the same thing we were about to buy.

Anne
Anne
11 years ago

A woman’s job is to spend her husband’s money? What is this, 1920?

EG
EG
11 years ago

Watching television doesn’t make you stupid. There’s plenty of stupid television, but that doesn’t mean anyone who enjoys watching TV becomes transitively stupid.

PW
PW
11 years ago

I really liked this post. I too enjoy travel, but giving up TV and other daily luxuries have been difficult. But I’m working on it one day at a time.

sara l
sara l
11 years ago

Whenever my friends give me a look about not doing whatever they want to spend money on I tell them it’s so I can afford the things I want, like my house and not having to work as much in the future.

Amanda
Amanda
11 years ago

Very interesting, very true – and right in line with an editorial I read this morning: Want less, spend less.

Steph
Steph
11 years ago

Sara – That’s exactly the point; good for you. In one sentence you’ve summed up the essence of personal finance. You spend on your own values instead of allowing others to tell you what you’re supposed to want. Once we figure out this basic tenet, we’re no longer subject to advertisers (or our peers parroting the ads’ messages) telling us that in order to be happy and hip we must drive this car, drink this wine, or wear these clothes while we go to this trendy bar or restaurant.

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

TV and computer watching cost money as well. My electric bill DOUBLED after my mom moved in (TV and computer both on all day) and DH went back to school (another computer on 24 hours/day). I read library books and listen to my ipod a lot so I don’t get sucked into whatever stupid show is on TV. Your post is good (except for the quote which took me a few read throughs to kinda understand) and goes pack to the principle of making CONSCIOUS choices. When I eat out I try to remind myself what the opportunity costs of… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Anne wrote: A woman’s job is to spend her husband’s money? What is this, 1920?

Yeah, that stuff is annoying (and some might say offensive). I think he’s trying to be funny but failing.

Vincent Scordo
Vincent Scordo
11 years ago

The idea of “wanting” concerns me a little. More specifically, the idea of wanting material things: cameras, video games, cars, electronics, etc. I think it’s ok to want: financial independence, being closer to your family, love, security, etc. , but the idea of controlling and managing your material wants so you can have some of them is hard to swallow. It’s amazing how if you focus on substantive wants (the items listed above) how the material wants will kind of diminish I’m not advocating being a monk or a cheapskate, but rather being frugal and having good life priorities. Here’s… Read more »

Carolynn
Carolynn
11 years ago

Provocative. I like it. I’m going to see how I can incorporate these strategies into my daily life. I especially love the quote about the difference between wealth & how much you own.

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

Great post. Pretty much we do. We take very nice vacations but we save up for them, we plan a reasonable budget that allows us to splurge on good food, wonderful hotels, and superb experiences, then when we take our trip we have the cash set aside to pay for the trip in full. I agree on the no new cars. We saved up cash for my nused car bought this year. I love having a nused car and I love not having a car payment. I really would like to spend some money on our house, new furniture and… Read more »

Kim
Kim
11 years ago

This is similar to something I’ve told myself for years now: I can have anything I want, but not necessarily all at once. Or immediately. Sometimes it works better than other times- I need to start reminding myself more often.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

While browsing my backlog of e-mail I found this link sent in by a reader:

How to save money for gadgets by cutting daily expenses

It shares a similar theme with Rockwell’s piece.

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

I think there’s no one thing that anyone can agree is THE place to save — we only have one car, but it was bought new and made my husband VERY happy. He has over the last 30+ years bought three cars new, but bought them all with cash and kept the firt two 10 years+ each and I expect this one, too is ours for a long term, so buying new doesn’t feel like an impediment to our getting rich slowly, and fits under prioritizing to afford the things that provide value and enjoyment.

Momma
Momma
11 years ago

Life is really all about making sacrifices. HOWEVER, what our society considers “sacrifices” aren’t really even sacrifices in most cases. We have so much material wealth in this country that we have come to think that living without things like televisions and computer are “sacrifices.” It’s insane! In my family, we made some choices and are “sacrificing” (if you can call it that) so I can stay home full-time with our son. I believe almost anyone can do this if they take a good look at their life/financial situation and re-evaluate where their money is really going. That’s why we… Read more »

bethh
bethh
11 years ago

Thanks for this article! I’ve decided to afford a three week trip to the UK next year. I have friends getting married there, but it’s just the excuse I needed to make the trip happen. I do plenty of travel in the US (including Cycle Oregon this year.. missed you, J.D.!) but haven’t been to Europe since 2001. That time has flown, and a lot has happened, and I want to get back now, not someday. So I’m making the trip my first priority (though I’ll still finish paying off my student loans next year, I think). I found a… Read more »

bethh
bethh
11 years ago

Oh.. and I think the quote “Most people are too stupid to be poor” means that most people are unwilling to get by with little money. In the context of the article it makes a teeny bit more sense… the brother doesn’t make much money but spends what he does have very carefully (grocery food when traveling instead of restaurants, for example).

Stray Cat
Stray Cat
11 years ago

Impulse buying is a sort of hobby for some. It’s the act of buying, not the things owned to provide happyness.
For some rich people, the act of buying is simply a self reassurance of their financial success.
To put this advice in practice, a detached attitude towards thins is necessary.

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

I believe you can selectively watch quality TV programs and have them enrich your life. But I’m also a TV writer so I suppose I’m biased. (swinging pocket watch) Yes, keep watching… keep watching…

Neil
Neil
11 years ago

Your explanation on frugal vs cheap is helpfull. Too often we don’t look for value, we simply buy what we think we need. In other cases we buy what we need, but because we were cheap it doesn’t do the job.

In many cases our priorities are messed up.

Mai
Mai
11 years ago

I think there are two conditions where buying new may be a good idea. And they both have to occur. First, the car must be paid completely in cash (or pay it off within a few months), and second, you must run the car to the ground till all you can do is sell it for parts. I think by maintaining a new car, you can easily have a car for 10, 15, even 20 years. And if don’t have a car payment, you can easily save up for another car at that point. That principle, of course, applies with… Read more »

Samir
Samir
11 years ago

Am I the only person that really didn’t like the article? An influential former manager once told me: “you work to live, you don’t live to work”. I feel like the author is putting just too much emphasis on having a huge bank account (even though he mentions that you can spend 99% of what you make, but not 101%). The section about kids really got to me as well. While I’m single w/ no kids, kids, from what I hear and a blessing. How can someone really put a $$ sign on that? I can understand if you make… Read more »

RenaissanceTrophyWife
RenaissanceTrophyWife
11 years ago

Interesting article; I buy things the same way. Delayed gratification is so worth it! I do have issues with a couple points: he got the marrying smart thing only half right– the best thing to do is marry a woman who makes more than you do AND spends her own money effectively. He wouldn’t buy a great camera body without the lens, or vice versa, right? On the issue of kids, he recommends not having them. I think that’s only if you can’t educate them properly to make a valuable contribution to the world. Kids aren’t an expense, they’re an… Read more »

Martin
Martin
11 years ago

The one point I really disagree with in the “how to afford anything” original article is the “don’t have kids” line. Life and frugality isn’t about not spending money, as it’s said in the article it’s about value in spending it. Kids offer value in many ways no matter how much of a drain they are in a purely financial sense. IMHO there is no time that you can ever “afford” kids, at best you can gear yourself to be better off financially when you decide to have them. Amazingly enough, once you have them, you will find a way… Read more »

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
11 years ago

@26,

He even says that he doesn’t believe everything he writes.

Everyone has there own theories on life and work balance. It all comes down to what do you really want? But between the advertisements, religions, family pressure, and social obligations you forget your wants, turn into a frantic spending chicken with now budget.

If everyone could figure out exactly what they wanted, they would be a lot better off.

-ThatGuy

Andy
Andy
11 years ago

Stuff is just that — stuff. You have to prioritize. My wife and I realized this when we started paying off debt about six months ago. We had too much stuff, including wedding gifts we hadn’t even opened. How’s that breadmaker doing sitting in the box? Seriously, we can have all the stuff we want later in life when money isn’t as much of a concern.

Miss M
Miss M
11 years ago

Striking a balance and weighing priorities are life long tasks, I’m still in the infancy stage. I got myself in a lot of debt by mistaking wants for needs, it’s hard for me now to accept that wants are OK in limited quantities. Right now I’m in the accumulate cash mode, making up for lost time. But at a certain point I will need something to spend that cash on or I’ll become a miser. I’ve cut out the unnecessary spending to save for something more important, only I haven’t figured out what that important thing is.

Jane
Jane
11 years ago

Wow. TV is once again presented as a waste of time on this blog. Am I the only GRS reader who really enjoys watching TV (even lame shows that I know are not very good)? At the end of the day, after taking care of my 6 month old son, all I have the energy to do sometimes is sit in front of the boob tube. Maybe I’m just an underachiever, but I like “wasting” time this way. Perhaps I could be writing poetry or something else deemed more valuable, but I’m not going to apologize for and be embarrassed… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Jane, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching television as long as you’re meeting your goals. As I say, I don’t go as far in complaining about it as Rockwell does in his essay. It’s not for me, and that’s fine. I know that other people enjoy it, and that’s fine, too. I think the key, as with all things, is to enjoy it in moderation.

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

It’s slightly off topic, but in reagrds to frugal vs. cheap- I just discovered that the $10 Nordstrom pantyhose last 4 times longer (on me) than the drugstore ($4) brand!! So that means that by spending twice as much on the front end I’m actually SAVING twice as much over time. I have two theories as to why these nylons last so much longer. 1) They are made with higher quality materials 2) They have more sizes (6 as opposed to 4) so buying the correct size is easier and you don’t wear through them quicker because they’re a smidge… Read more »

ben
ben
11 years ago

I think the principles in this post are somewhat akin to the diet principles put forth in the Best Life Diet. Before making any lifestyle changes, the key is to understand why the bloating (food or debt, take your pick) has occurred. Why does one spend unwisely? After that is answered, then one can begin to make small lifestyle changes over time. Just up and amending one’s spending (or eating habits for that matter) habits as a complete wholesale change often doesn’t work. Understanding the cause, making regular, small adjustments over time (and sticking to them) can certainly help in… Read more »

Sharon
Sharon
11 years ago

I have to say, I didn’t really like the article. Maybe because of his tone which I found condescending, or maybe because like poster #26, his section on kids got to me. He has a pretty dismal view of life. But what I really don’t get, is at the bottom of his page, he has a link where you can click to help support his growing family. Click it, and there’s a baby…and then he asks for donations of 5 dollars to help!?! I thought he had it all figured out, cars, traveling, TV, the way cancer will never be… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

Jane,

I will second what JD says. I don’t like watching television, but that is for MYSELF. There are plenty of television shows more enriching than many of the fluff novels I’ve read. I just hate the feeling of looking up and an hour is gone. I am the same way with computers and video games. I’m not anti-any of these, but I set limits for myself and my family.

leigh
leigh
11 years ago

avoid addiction to caffeine… HAHAHAHAHAHA!
i’m not addicted, just really dependent.

but really, i’ve had a similar view of things for years. husband was a quick convert when he saw the big-picture benefits of blowing off the trivial things we didn’t really need. my family seems to think we’re loaded- or were before the big change. not so. we just chose our spending wisely to focus on what we wanted.

Dana
Dana
11 years ago

I’m not quite a card-carrying feminist, as feminist organizations don’t often issue cards, but I can see what he meant by women spending their husbands’ money. There are still plenty of women out there who think men exist to give them cashola. There is a whole ‘nother group of women who run the household while their husbands make the paycheck, so by extension the wives physically pay a lot of the bills too, as that’s part of the work they took on in the division of labor. So, jokingly or not, it’s sort of true. His post reminds me of… Read more »

Aleks
Aleks
11 years ago

Wow. TV is once again presented as a waste of time on this blog. Am I the only GRS reader who really enjoys watching TV (even lame shows that I know are not very good)? Yeah, I don’t understand why so many frugality/personal finance fans are also the “Man who doesn’t own a TV constantly telling people he doesn’t own a TV” guy. Seems like the two groups shouldn’t overlap as much as they do. Especially in this day, which is the golden age of television. Shows like Dexter and The Wire and Generation Kill are better than any movies… Read more »

Dana
Dana
11 years ago

Oh, and as for the kid thing, contrary to some people’s opinion, parents are often aware that choosing to have kids is not the best choice ecologically. At the same time, if we want our species to continue, someone’s got to have them. We just haven’t figured out a fair and just way to decide who does and who doesn’t, yet. It doesn’t help that we still subscribe to a lot of myths about what makes kids turn out the way they do, so it’s likely that in the end we would choose the wrong people as “ideal breeders” and… Read more »

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

On the t.v. issue, the NYT recently covered a study that showed that happy people watch less t.v. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/health/research/20happy.html?scp=1&sq=happy%20less%20t.v.&st=cse

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

I used to be an anti-television zealot, and you can probably still sense that in some of my posts. I try to stay pretty neutral on the subject, though. (But not all of my guest posters do!) The truth is, watching television can be fun and educational. Though I don’t watch broadcast TV myself (except for the Oscars and the Olympics), I do watch TV shows on DVD. I enjoy it. The key is to find balance, as I said before, and to know what works for you. I can’t work or think while the TV is on, so I… Read more »

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

Great simple explanation between cheap and frugal. Many people think they save on buying cheap, but that’s not always the case. If you buy something cheap, it may break more easily and end up costing more in the long run. All depends on the product, and of course good consumer research should be involved.

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

Cheap is often also in how you treat situations or people. A coworker of DH is selling his house and asked his housekeeper to sell his furniture. He apparently had more important things to do. When she didn’t get top dollar for everything (though she did get fair value IMHO) he chewed her out. He is burning his bridges behind him and this behavior will most likely cost him in the long run, maybe not in this situation but eventually. If you try to wring every last penny out of each situation and relationship, eventually you will have to go… Read more »

Ethan
Ethan
11 years ago

“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!” In the context he intended it (keeping up with the Joneses), this statement is fine. But as a stand-alone statement it is the opposite of money wisdom. Money is not an end in itself – money by itself is useless. It is only what money can get for you that gives it value. So, what you own is not only just as valuable as how much money you have, it’s actually the… Read more »

slowth
slowth
11 years ago

As a long time Ken Rockwell reader, maybe I can cut through the haze so many commenters have trouble seeing through. Kids: Not cost effective in modern times. Once helped on farm, or provided other meaningful and absolutely necessary labor. Children “paid” for themselves until they were adults. Today, kids don’t contribute to the household because the parents can make money and provide for the family. Children are now a burden, but of course they are a welcome burden. All he is saying is that if you want to save money, don’t have children, and there’s no way to argue… Read more »

Gwen
Gwen
11 years ago

I’m with you Samir (#26), I didn’t care for the article at all once I got to the part about a woman’s role and not having children. It was interesting to read what he has been able to accomplish and how he was able to accomplish it and it’s still certainly useful information, but my overall impression was ruined by those two comments. Fortunately for Ken he has someone to explain Ken to you (#47). However, I would argue with “slowth” (#47) that there was no “haze” to cut through. If his opinion needs to be explained in more detail… Read more »

slowth
slowth
11 years ago

Hi Gwen, I certainly understand your concern with how his comments appear at first glance. I only responded with my recent post because I think this negative first impression is unfortunate. The ‘haze’ I’m referring to is the fact the Rockwell doesn’t organize his site well enough so that readers can understand his positions. It’s primarily a technical site, but he peppers his opinions throughout all of his posts, so it’s sort of like rearranging the chapters of War and Peace and then trying to decipher the meaning. He could probably learn a thing or two from J.D. about presenting… Read more »

BethC
BethC
11 years ago

It’s all about priorities. Some expenses are worth it to me because they are things or experiences I value and enjoy, regardless of how anyone else feels about them. Other things (like an iPhone, for example) are not important to me so I don’t choose to spend money on them even as my friends fawn over them.

Even people I know with quite a bit of money won’t pay big bucks on something if they don’t think it’s worth the price. It needs to be a good value and something they really want or need.

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