The Art Of Saying No

When was the last time you stared down something you really wanted in the store and walked away? Were you able to tell yourself no? How about the last time someone asked you for help, but you didn’t really have the time or money to help? Did you turn them down?

I struggle mightily with both scenarios – saying no to myself, and to others, but it is something I have vowed to work on. Not because I am mean, or unwilling to help, but because no is a powerful tool to protecting my family’s finances, and at times, my own sanity.

Saying No to Yourself

Much of the economic problems our country faces can be attributed to our inability to say no to ourselves. No to more spending. No to a bigger home we cannot afford. No to accumulating more debt. Why is it so hard to tell ourselves no?

As kids, we are quite accustomed to hearing the word no. I went through a very curious stage myself where I’m told I tried to get into all sorts of things. My mom joked that she was afraid I’d grow up to think my name was “No Jason.”

Then we reach a stage in life called the teen years, where we are told to still say no to bad things, but occasionally say yes (and work hard to keep it from our parents!). But the older we get, the less accountable we are to others, and the more accountable we are only to ourselves.

I’m reminded of a famous quote on the subject of integrity: “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.”

Well, to me this describes our decision-making process as young adults. After all, if young and single, chances are you are accountable to no one regarding personal decisions. This is why continuing to say no to yourself is so difficult.

The problem is before we wake up by the age of 30 with a spouse and two kids, we can do a lot of damage. I know; we squandered much of our 20s over-spending and accumulating debt on cars, school and other more frivolous things.

Looking back, I recognize we missed a great opportunity to get a jump on building wealth, and providing a more stable financial foundation for our family to come. If only we’d said no more often.

Saying No to Others

For some, saying no to others is infinitely more difficult than telling themselves no. These people are often categorized as “pleasers.” They put their own needs aside to please others. They are unselfish, to a fault.

There are plenty of good reasons to tell others no. Whether it is to protect your schedule, your sanity, or your wallet, the simple act of saying no often creates healthy boundaries in relationships with others.

In the personal finance world, one of the biggest problematic relational situations I see people get themselves in involves cosigning loans, or outright loaning money to friends and family. Obviously, when approached for a loan from someone you care about, it is hard to turn them down. However, if you are not in the financial shape to help others then saying anything other than no is to put your own financial well-being at greater risk.

Personally, I don’t loan money to anyone because I don’t like the idea of creating debt for others. We worked hard to experience debt freedom, and the last thing I want to do is enable others to owe money – especially when I might have to be on the collecting end of that relationship.

So, instead of loaning money, I give it away (when appropriate, and when I can afford to). This is a little softer approach than flat out denying someone help, and allows us to help a loved one with no strings attached.

I encourage you to resolve to say no more often – to yourself and to others. Do not allow yourself to become over-committed by saying yes to everyone, because that leads to stress. It also makes you less effective at the few things you really do care about. Identify those few things that are most important to you, and build your “yes” responses around those, while blocking out other distractions.


  1. You’re right, of course.

    There’s a problem with saying “no,” however. The problem that I have is that it often comes off as sounding so darn negative. No?

    A trick I like to employ is to turn the “no” into a “yes!” to something better. I don’t say “no” to spending, I say “yes!” to gaining the financial freedom to be able to do the work I love. I don’t say “no” to taking my boys to see the Orioles, I say “yes!” to playing running bases in the backyard with them and then Monopoly afterwards because we didn’t have to waste 30 minutes looking for a parking space and for someone willing to sell us hotdogs for $5 each.

    A “no” always implies a “yes!” of some kind. Because life is a series of choices and the rejection of one path always means the opening up of an alternative path. I don’t like framing my choices in negative terms because it undermines my excitement over them. So I always play the game of converting “no” into “yes!”.

    “Yes!” just sounds better somehow. There is something within us that doesn’t like “no.”


  2. You’ve hit the nail right on the head, FD! It’s not the credit card that gets us into debt, it’s US. It was too easy and too convenient to just put it on the credit card. Suddenly, we didn’t have to wait for anything (“yes!”)and it slotted nicely into our culture of convenience, which I’m writing about now.

  3. Excellent post, and thanks for sharing. BTW, did you mean “It also makes you MORE effective at the few things you really do care about” in the last paragraph? That seems to make more sense.

    Rob, I like your mode of thinking. Just be careful: when I was a kid I found way to frame my requests around a crazy idea knowing my parents would refuse that and instead say ‘yes’ to the thing I truly wanted. Kids! Now I have two of my own to play the same tricks on me.

  4. I can tell myself No pretty easily, but telling other No is a constant struggle for me, especially my kids… But it’s a necessary task, especially when not saying No does more harm that good.

    Love that quote “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.”

    So true!

  5. Financially, saying no to myself and others is easy.

    Emotionally, saying no to myself and others is almost impossible…

    For example, I babysat (for free) the son of a “friend” every Tuesday and Thursday for almost an entire semester so she could go to community college. We were both adults and I thought this could help her move ahead.

    It wasn’t until the tail end of the semester that I found out she was flunking and was skipping classes on a semi-regular basis to hang out with other friends.

    Needless to say, I’ve gotten a little better at saying no to long-term commitments, but I’m still a sucker if someone needs help.

  6. Amen, amen.

    Your motive for giving money where possible — to wit, in order to avoid indebting others — appears quite noble, and I will continue to consider it.

    Heretofore, my practice has been to never loan money I wouldn’t give away, that is, never to issue a loan which I expect to be repaid. I wonder if your practice is not better.

  7. Rob: Totally agree with your thinking about how “no” is really a “yes.”

    Another thought about self-control involved in saying no to ourselves.

    If you look very closely at the family lives of many people who are in debt or who have money challenges, you will often find they come from a home with serious family dysfunctions. Many folks had unloving, uncaring parents who offered no emotional support.

    Those folks heard “no” on so many levels that by the time they are adults, they often go to the opposite end of the pendulum, saying “yes” even when they know it is against their best interests. Saying “yes” to themselves becomes necessary as they try to build themselves up via “having”, which, of course, we intellectually know does not work. But so much of spending is not about intellect or reason or being rational.

    Until one addresses the true emotional underpinnings of our choices (no or yes), one is basically victimizing one’s self.

    As for saying no to others. You do not have to be a pleaser to have difficulty with this. The external pressure from others (family, friends, co-worker) can be intense. (Heck Oprah admits she can’t say no at times and I mean, seriously, she is the master of her life!)

  8. This is one area my sister and I excelled in.. My mother was a banker. If my sister and I wanted something that was going to be a big ticket item, games, dolls or something just above our allowance we were allowed to submit loan requests and then set our own interest rate and sign a loan app and pay back date with our mother. She would review and approve or decline. My mother would approve a purchase such a expensive doll if I had an allowance or side jobs or cleaned or did odd jobs which she would also ask if I wanted to apply it toward the loans. This has worked for every large purchase my family has made because of my mother and always with interest so mom would make money to…Never have there been problems. I would do it this way with my kids if I had any..

  9. I found myself in a situation you spoke about: lending money to a friend. Fortunately I can afford it, but that friend unexpectedly lost his job, and has not paid me back yet. I was expecting the money about 7 months ago. Granted I could certainly use the money, but I would take the amount of help i was able to provide to my friend over paying that much more down on my debt any day. Always remember the Golden Rule….

  10. Great post. Learning to say no especially financially will save you alot of misery of debt.Life is about balance and we are learning to ask God for wisdom on choices that we make.

  11. I am particularily bad at saying no to others… In fact I am on a debt management plan because of debt acquired through loaning to relatives…. my credit is screwed and I have had many years of hardship due to not saying NO….. I have learned a hard lesson but I still battle with saying the word and often suffer myself because of it!



  12. Great post,
    There was a time, maybe one or two generations ago, when “no” was an accepted response. It definitely needs to be integrated back into our vocabulary. I particularly appreciate your philosophy in loaning money. I totally agree!

  13. Good for you frugaldad! Great post. I was just on a canadian site doing mortgage calculations in the CFO Community… the rates up here are as low as 3.8% for 5yr fixed. But still, when you do the 1st year Mortgage calculation and compare to what you think you’ll sell for, it makes you wonder… Feedback??