Middlesbrough chief executive Keith Lamb has warned the club will not be able to compete as it has in the transfer market if crowds continue to dwindle at the Riverside Stadium.
Chairman Steve Gibson's reign has been characterised by big-money moves for the likes of Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Paul Merson and Gareth Southgate - while lucrative pay packets have helped attract other high-profile players to Teesside.
But Lamb, whose comments were made during the same Century FM radio phone-in on which he admitted manager Steve McClaren is yet to sign his contract, hinted that kind of expenditure could soon come to an end.
'Eventually, the fans will get the club they can afford and the area will get the team they can afford,' he said.
'We are not a big club in terms of our resources, nor in terms of our catchment area - nowhere near as big as Newcastle.
'For 10 years now, we have been punching way above our weight and at the moment we are going through a bit of a slump. We have bought players who have been the envy of other clubs - and we have opened a few eyes.
'People were accusing Middlesbrough of spoiling it for everybody because we paid fantastic salaries and huge transfer fees for the likes of Ravanelli, Southgate, (George) Boateng and (Paul) Merson, and we did that for the love of Middlesbrough.
'But ultimately, you can't continue doing that with falling gates. We have got to pay our way.'
It is only 20 years since Boro faced extinction as bankruptcy loomed large - and having seen the scrap for survival, Lamb insists the club hierarchy will not risk a repeat amid mounting disappointment over their recent slump to 17th place in the Premiership.
'I'm a Boro fan; I'm concerned by the league position and the falling gates, because it's only through having a very profitable football club that we can reinvest that money in new players and in transfer fees,' he said.
'Every penny that comes into the football club goes out from it in one form or another, the vast majority in player salaries and transfer fees.
'What we won't do is run the club into the ground as the predecessors did - 1986 is a long time ago, but it's still fresh in our memories, the problems we had at Ayresome Park and trying to resurrect the club.
'We won't mortgage the club and we won't bankrupt the club. We cut our cloth accordingly. If things are going well and loads of money is pouring into the club we'll spend more on players and other things.'
Lamb's frank admission will do little to appease angry fans still wondering why the club announced McClaren had signed his contract when he had not.
Boro have insisted only a minor technicality is to blame and were maintaining that stance today.
The whole issue has been brought into sharper focus by Boro's dismal form of late - they have won none of their last nine league games and face a difficult FA Cup fourth-round trip to Coventry on Saturday, with McClaren in a distinctly uncomfortable position.
However, Lamb at least believes the club's future is in good hands in the shape of the youngsters emerging from the ranks.
'I'm still optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, because we have a fantastic wealth of talent coming through,' he said.
'If we can keep these young kids - who are already proving they have the temperament and ability to play in the Premier League - then over the next five or six years the majority of players turning out regularly will be local lads, supplemented by a few outsiders we have to pay money for.'