Can you afford it?

In recent weeks I have been conducting a mini-experiment. It’s turned out to be surprisingly interesting, not always for the most predictable reasons.  It began when I was debating whether to get tickets for a special concert, then deciding that I could not afford it.

Even as I was making that decision, though, I was aware of how much I spend on books and that some people would sacrifice almost everything other than the absolute basics to go to concerts, ballet, opera or theatre on a regular basis. I personally know of people who would infinitely prefer to save for a painting than new clothes. Or would rather travel modestly with their children than send them to a coaching college or costly school.

Except in the toughest economic circumstances, it’s clear that the very word “afford” comes loaded with all kinds of highly subjective judgements and assumptions.

With that in mind, I decided to ask a range of people what they would love to do if they could afford it.  I didn’t define “afford” for them. I wanted to glimpse what the heart rather than “common sense” longed for.

Lifestyle choices rather than “things” dominated these conversations. Among younger people, issues around work and home stood out. From several people I heard, “If we could afford it, we’d love to start a family.”  Even more often, “I’d like to take a chunk of time off work, maybe to travel but also to see if there’s something different that I’d like to do.” Several people spoke of feeling trapped by career decisions they had made far too early, and now could see “no way out”.

Older people also spoke of affording “more choice” when it comes to paid work. The stimulation of taking on something new, or because it is meaningful rather than because it pays well, appeared to be a deep desire. Being able to work part- rather than full-time came up several times.  Full-time work is far more than “full-time” for many of us.  Some said that unless they win Lotto they wouldn’t ever be able to retire. People also reflected aloud on small pleasures they would love to afford.

Many believe, like me, that tickets for the big cultural events are generally beyond their means. Or eating out, except at the local Thai. Some people mentioned how carefully they do their grocery shopping and what fun it would be occasionally to splurge. Cruises, glamour holidays or new bathrooms didn’t get a mention.

Parents with little children said they would buy more help if they could afford it, some for childcare but also to take care of the endless jobs of running a home. They too spoke longingly of being more flexible with work – and with continuing their education.

Professional development did not come up at all while talk of further or more varied education was heartfelt. My sample is far too small to be representative but it certainly suggested that we would have a better educated, more stimulated and perhaps happier population if tertiary and especially post-graduate fees were less prohibitive.

Time for more voluntary work was what some longed to afford. And extended time for spiritual reflection and growth. “If I could spend a year in a monastery like men do in some Asian countries that would be awesome,” one man in his thirties told me. Not particularly religious, his desire for that kind of time out is passionate and instinctive. And that’s what has made this almost-survey so fascinating.  When our instincts nudge us, many of us routinely over-ride it with pragmatism. But surely the usual measures of good sense are only part of life?

Sometimes we have to consider what will enrich us most inwardly – and let ourselves afford it.