When I was nineteen years old I took a job that most people could not imagine doing. I signed up to sell educational books door-to-door all summer long in the western suburbs of St. Louis. For thirteen weeks that summer I worked from sunup until sundown six days a week, walking from house to house in the stifling heat and humidity.
I learned a LOT that summer. In addition to the sales training and development of my sales skills, I also learned a lot about life. I learned how to pick myself up and move on when someone rejected my products (which literally happened pretty much all day every day). More importantly, I learned how to pick myself up and move on when someone rejected ME (since unfortunately there were plenty of people who did not have to hear one word of my sales pitch to decide that they hated me and wanted me off their property immediately).
That was so many years ago now (a little over 15 years ago, to be precise), but to this day I have not forgotten the words of my sales director one day when I mentioned to him that a big problem I was having was that a lot of people were telling me that they could not afford to buy books from me. I have not forgotten the words that he said next.
“People can afford anything they want to afford,” he told me.
This message hit me like a bolt out of the blue, I think because the truth in that statement was almost tangible. He was so right. I recalled sitting in people’s living rooms (complete with large screen TVs and baby grand pianos) and patiently going through my 20 minute sales presentation, thinking they were with me every step of the way (and thinking they probably had some extra cash sitting around judging by the fabulous vehicles in the driveway), and then BAM! All of the sudden they hit me with that familiar line, “I can’t afford it.”
Now, my door-to-door sales cronies at the time taught me that if someone was telling me that they couldn’t afford it, the problem was that I just hadn’t done a good enough job of making them want to afford it. And of course there were sales techniques to help address this particular concern.
But I think the reason that 15 years later this conversation is still with me is because it describes so much of what I see in everyday life. I no longer spend my days hanging out in strangers’ living rooms to make money (thank goodness!), but I would say that you really don’t have to hang out in someone’s living room in order to figure out what they spend their money on. Just take a look around you when you drive down the street. I don’t know about where you all live, but where I live a lot of people drive expensive SUVs. As in the kind that can easily cost up to $60-70K. Who drives all these expensive vehicles? Do I just happen to live in the richest town in the country? I don’t think so!
There are also a ton of really nice homes within 2-3 miles from where I live. As in a whole section of town where the homes all cost upwards of $300K and the homeowners throw massive fits and start up huge petitions when Wal-mart wants to build near them. Yeah, that kind of place.
Can people really afford anything they want to afford?
Are we such masters at the art of justification that most of us can rationalize any purchase, no matter how large? Sadly, I think that in terms of standard keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type attitude that this is true. I think that often we as humans may see that our peers have something that we like. And it makes us want it too. And instead of consulting our budget sheets (let’s face it, I know many readers of this article have a budget, but how many average people out there actually have budgets?) we consult our own knowledge about Sally and Bill Jones. We may think to ourselves, “We make more money than Sally and Bill. And they can afford to buy an X (insert the name of fabulous consumer item). So that means that I should easily be able to afford one too.”
Rationalization and justification. These are the reasons why I think my sales colleague told me all those years ago that people can afford anything they want to afford. I think he’s right. I see so many instances of this within my own family, friends, and acquaintances. People who I may know for a fact have tons of debt or have little in retirement accounts. Yet I see them spending lots of money on expensive consumer items. It often seems to be “the way” since so many others that we know have the same consumer spending habits.
As a matter of fact, one of the sales tactics that I was taught to use all those years ago was to name-drop. If a potential customer seemed to be wavering on whether or not to purchase, I was taught to pull out my sales book and say things like, “Do you know Jane Smith two houses down? She just bought books from me to help Billy with his math homework….” The purpose of this was not idle chitchat. It was classic Psychology 101. Everyone else is doing it.
So what does this mean?
Is most of the world doomed to be slave to consumer goods and services and the whims of others? I don’t think so. It’s entirely possible to buck the trend and determine that you don’t want to be slave to banks and lenders and other debtors in your life. However, it takes a willingness to step outside yourself and look at your finances objectively. This is why I think numbers help so much and why I have written in the past about the importance of calculating your net worth. Numbers don’t lie, and they don’t crave Starbucks or Apple products either. And if you are to have any hope of determining whether or not you can actually afford something, consulting cold hard numbers (like your budget or your net worth) is going to be a much more reliable way to determine if you can actually afford something than by guesstimating that if your neighbors can afford it then you must be able to as well.
Back to the original question
Can people really afford anything they want? I want to hear what YOU think. Do you see examples of people being able to afford anything they want to? Do you hate me now that you know I used to sell door-to-door?
Photo credit: Douglas Muth