For the past year and a half (since I embarked on my house construction project), I've been consistently short on cash. Fortunately my fixed expenses are virtually nonexistent, but I don't have much to spare for frivolities. So I constantly find myself thinking or saying the words "I can't afford". But nonetheless, I also keep buying things, implicitly saying "I can afford". Here's a brief snapshot of what I can and can't afford lately:
- I can't afford a real shower surround (~$650 - this price is super high due to shipping)
- I can afford an Android tablet ($260)
- I can't afford Minecraft Pocket Edition ($7)
- I can afford a set of 117 polyhedral dice ($22)
- I can afford a portable whiteboard with 1" square grid for gaming ($12)
- I couldn't afford to buy the previous two items from retailers that treat their employees decently
- I can't afford fruits and vegetables
- I can afford to buy sunflower butter ($5) instead of peanut butter ($3)
- I can't afford turning the heat high enough to get cozy
- I can afford a dish drainer ($17)
- I can afford a few days' worth of library fines
- I can't afford taking the bus ($1)
- I can't afford taking a trip to Wisconsin to visit friends and go to a gaming convention (~$250)
- I can't afford necessary oral surgery (~$5000?)
Looking at this list, it seems pretty arbitrary what I can and can't afford. It gets more confusing when I ask why one thing or other is a priority. Is the shower a low priority because I already have a shower (my temporary "redneck shower") that gets the job done? Or is it because I'm dreading the installation of the official shower? Was the tablet a high priority because my netbook is on the fritz and I need a way to access the internet? Or was it because I lusted after a cool new toy? Are fruits and vegetables a low priority because I don't want to support long-distance industrial food, or because I prioritize my gaming hobby over my health? For any given decision to spend or not to spend, I have several justifications at play, some less virtuous than others.
Of course, the list of things I can't afford spans well beyond the things above (all of which I've at least carefully considered). There are any number of nobler ways I could spend my money. My church yesterday took an offering for an organization that fights human trafficking. (Apparently, these days it only costs $90 to buy a person. As compared to before the Civil War when, adjusted for inflation, it cost around $40,000. Theoretically, for the cost of my tablet plus the accessories and apps, I could have bought and freed three and a half enslaved human beings.) I could donate food or medicine or chickens to poor people abroad for ridiculously low sums of money. I could chip in to my favorite podcasts or open-source projects, or to this dude who draws beautiful maps for role-playing games.
Sometimes I cringe when I hear people say they can't afford something. "I'm all for local and organic stuff, I just can't afford it." Yeah, but you can eat out several times a week? "I can't afford a bike like that." And yet somehow you can afford a car?
I'm not so much trying to make a point as trying to break open some questions. Is it ever ok to splurge? It seems Judas didn't think so. Jesus did. Yet, if I overlook his nefarious motives, I often find myself sympathizing with Judas. If splurging is ok, then when, and on what? When is it hypocritical? (As I've written before, I'm wary to accuse people of hypocrisy. But I'm also pretty wary of hypocrisy itself.) How does spending on loved ones stack up next to spending on needy strangers? How does paying the actual costs for the things we use (e.g. food, transportation, public radio) stack up next to penny-pinching and then giving to the poor (who are perhaps kept in poverty by the penny-pinching)? Should we spend for ourselves only in proportion to how much we spend for others? And if so, how would we even discern what counts as a selfless expenditure?
I don't suppose there is a simple answer to these questions. In fact, if someone gave me one, I would be suspicious of it. But just because a question may be unanswerable does not mean it is not worth asking.