How Learning to Say “No” Will Help Your Life and Your Finances

by Joe Plemon on June 7, 2010

  • Marti had begun to see a pattern in her life. In her words, “When someone needs four hours with me, I can’t say no. But when I need someone for ten minutes, I can’t ask for help. Is there a computer chip in my brain I could replace?”
  • Jim had never been able to say no to anyone, especially his supervisors at work. He had moved up to the position of operations manager in a large firm. His dependability had earned him the reputation of “Mr. Can Do”.  But his kids had another name for him: “the Phantom”. Jim was never home. Being “Mr. Can Do” meant late nights at the office, business dinners several nights a week and weekends on the road even after he had promised the kids fishing trips and trips to the zoo.

Saying "no" can establish healthy boundaries. The inability to say "no" removes those boundaries.


In their classic book “Boundaries”, Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain various boundary problems people experience. One such problem is that of “Compliants”, who say yes to bad things because they haven’t learned how to say no or even that it’s OK to say no. Marti and Jim are examples of compliants. Because they don’t know how to say no, they do not establish healthy relational boundaries.

Why can’t they say no?

I suggest you read the book to get the more profound answers to this question, but basically, Marti and Jim and other compliants act from fear:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of hurting another person’s feelings
  • Fear of someone else’s anger
  • Fear of being seen as unspiritual
  • Fear of being seen as bad or selfish

You get the idea. Many people who are overly helpful have motives other than simply wanting to help; they may be afraid not to help. Where am I going with this? Most of us know compliants. Some are married to compliants. Many are compliants. Not being able to say no will cause problems with marriages, parenting, work and personal finances. Let’s touch briefly on each of these areas of life.

Marriage

A compliant spouse will not stand up for herself. She is vulnerable to abuse and will never have a true voice in her marriage. Financially, she will agree to “whatever you want honey”. Her spouse will never really know his wife and the two, therefore, will never truly become one.

Parenting

The parent who doesn’t know how to say no is teaching children that life has no limits, that there is no right and wrong and that wrong actions have no consequences. What kind of adult will this child become? My hunch is one that has little respect for the law, for his employer or for God.

Work

The compliant person is the one who always accepts everything the boss piles on. A controlling boss will take advantage of the compliant employee without batting an eye. She may be heralded as a super worker, but sacrifices other relationships in the process. This is “Jim” in the opening illustration.

Financial

The person who does not know how to say no will say yes way too many times. This is the person who will succumb to the telemarketer, pay list price at the car lot and send grocery money to the threatening credit card collector. Remember: the compliant hasn’t learned to say no or even that it’s OK to say no. As already mentioned, a family budget is an impossibility because the compliant spouse won’t speak up, sending a message to the partner that anything is OK when both know everything really isn’t OK. Obviously, for the compliant, the lack of boundaries can be an expensive problem.

Concluding thoughts

In life and in our finances, the actions we take are often determined by deeper issues. Financial gurus commonly give great tips for getting one’s finances under control, but real life often requires more than learning a new technique;  it may require peering deeply into the mirror to learn what makes us tick.

Is a compliant person hopelessly stuck in that role? Of course not. Lack of boundaries is a learned behavior, so establishing boundaries is also something that can be learned.

Creative Commons License photo credit: eridesign

Readers: Do you know compliant people? Are you married to a compliant? Are you one? How does not knowing how to say no affect your life and your finances?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Norman June 7, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Learning to say no has always been a hard lesson for me to learn. Your post is timely for me because I am struggling with helping my 22 year old son to stand on his own two feet. I know what I have to do….say NO.

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc June 7, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I have been intending to read boundaries for a while, and I agree with the concept of being able to say no so much. It’s been challenging at times to implement this into my life because I like pleasing people. However, I am learning that saying no is sometimes necessary to keep myself on track towards my goals.

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FinancialBondage June 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm

No is a great word. Don’t be afraid to use it. If you never use it, you may find that people will take advantage of that fact, and of you. Which is not fun.

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Darren June 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Saying no to certain people and requests may be hard because we fear the loss of their approval. I also think that we have a need to be needed, and this can lead us to take on more than we can handle.

But saying yes to everything and everyone basically leads to you be at their mercy, which isn’t a good place to be. It will burn you out very quickly.

As much as people want to, you just can’t please everyone. Establishing priorities will help keep things in balance.

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joeplemon June 8, 2010 at 6:12 am

@Norman,
You can do it! It isn’t easy, but your son will respect you for it.

@Roshawn,
Yes, you should definitely read the book. It is an eye-opener. Our Sunday School class is currently studying a series on “Boundaries” via a DVD and student workbooks.

@Arthur,
You got it! Some people think saying no is being selfish. Not true. It is simply a tool to keep our own lives on course instead of being controlled by others.

@Darren,
Yes, we do have a need to be needed. But we also have limits. My wife and I monitor each other’s “busy-ness” with this rule: Don’t ever take on a new responsibility without dropping something you are already doing. It really helps us say no when we should.

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Linda June 9, 2010 at 10:33 am

Joe that’s a great article. “no” is tough for me, at work, with friends and with family. I’ve been working to get better, but it’s amazing how it affects all areas of life not just those which might seem to be directly related.

i.e. personal finance

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joeplemon June 9, 2010 at 10:44 am

@Linda,
I am glad the article helped. And yes, not saying “no” affects much more of life than just our finances. Did you identify with any of the “fears” that I listed?

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc June 9, 2010 at 11:49 am

One thing that’s been helping me with being able to say no was learning that it has a place in character development. In other words, having more of a backbone is a desirable characteristics. 🙂

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Ace June 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Joe interesting topic. I’ve never really considered how my yes yes yes attitude could have costly side effects. I’ve always been one to go out of the way to avoid having to say the dreaded “No.” But your points were pretty compelling, so I hope that I can push myself to learn how to say no.

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joeplemon June 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm

@Ace,
You can do it. The first time you establish your boundaries and say “no” you will feel great. One thing that helps me is a commitment to never say yes to new responsibilities unless I am willing to give up something I am already doing.

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Ace June 17, 2010 at 3:59 pm

That actually sounds like a great idea Joe. The idea of spreading myself too thinly is definitely one that always concerns me. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I find myself in that situation. =P

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Greg June 28, 2010 at 11:23 am

Awesome topic…too often saying “Yes”, simply enables others to continue either bad habits or detrimental behavior. I believe that when we truly help someone, the help should provide a way to a better long-term condition.

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