How often do the words "I need" come out of your mouth? (If you're like my husband, probably every 5 seconds!) Listen to the people around you today and notice how prevalent this phrase is -- "I need a Coke" -- "I need to upgrade my computer" -- "I need a pair of red pumps" -- "I need to get my hair cut" -- "I need a raise." But did you ever stop to think how many of those requests are actually needs, and how many are simply wants?
Making The Distinction
Let's start by looking at the word "need." According to the strictest definition, a "need" is something that you must have to get by in this world -- a necessity, without which you will experience physical suffering or deprivation. You need food, shelter, clothing, medical care -- the basics. But you don't actually "need" a big screen TV to ward off hunger or thirst. A "want," on the other hand, is something that you desire. Sure, you would like to have it, and your quality of life may improve once you have it -- but by no means will you suffer in any way (except perhaps mental anguish) if you don't get the thing you want. "Wants" quite often fall into the category of luxuries -- nice to have, but the world won't end without them.
The hard part comes when you live in a prosperous capitalistic society, like ours. The western standard of living is so high that even the majority of our lower classes exist well above the level of basic needs. According to the Heritage Foundation, 76% of American families that are classified as "poor" have air conditioning, 97% have a color television, 78% have a VCR or DVD player, 62% have cable or satellite, 73% own microwave ovens, and 33% have an automatic dishwasher -- all of which could be considered luxuries. By way of contrast, consider the fact that, in many third-world countries, less than 30% of the population even has access to electricity -- a technological advance which most westerners would view as an absolute necessity. My intention is not to make anyone feel guilty for what they have or desire -- it's simply to point out that the distinction between want and need is often relative. It depends on the area in which you live, the company you keep, the lifestyle you choose, and the expectations of the society around you.
The situation would be greatly simplified if our wants and needs were our own to control -- but outside forces play as much a part in some people's spending decisions as their internal barometers. We are influenced every day by the popular culture around us -- bombarded by messages from television, magazines, movies, and advertising, introducing us to new consumable goods that we just can't live without. You see an ad for for a product that promises to make you beautiful or glamorous or wealthy or hip. The photos are slick, the copy convincing. Your pulse speeds up and you get a tingly feeling in your gut. It's perfect -- how had you ever lived without it before? You rush right out to the store -- what?! You don't have any left in stock?! Oh no!
You spend the rest of the day feeling disappointed, let down, even cheated. Why? Because you've convinced yourself that you really, really "need" this item -- even though you never knew it existed before today. And you had better believe that advertisers understand and exploit this principle -- marketing is all about creating an artificial sense of desire where there was none before. That's why even harmless activities like window-shopping or browsing online can get you into trouble -- the mere act of seeing all these things you don't own is enough to make you feel that you SHOULD own them. That's the basis of almost all children's advertising. Do you remember looking through the "big holiday book" as you made out your Christmas list when you were a kid? Instead of simply requesting things we already knew we wanted, my friends and I went searching through catalogs for toys to ask for! That's how I decided that I "needed" an Easy-Bake oven one year in grammar school. I hadn't played with one and didn't know if I would even like it, but it became an obsession. I asked for that damned thing three Christmases in a row. But I never got it, and my life is no worse off in the long run. In fact, the brownies I cooked in our real oven tasted a hell of a lot better than anything I would have "baked" under a light bulb -- and I learned that I could survive quite nicely in this world, even if I didn't get everything I wanted. It's a lesson that fewer and fewer kids are taught these days. If I had one wish for our younger generation, it would be that every child is denied an Easy-Bake oven!
The High Cost Of Needs
So what's wrong with liking new things and wanting to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle? Nothing, as long as your spending habits aren't getting in the way of other more important goals and priorities. It's only a problem when attempting to maintain a certain standard of living causes you financial stress. How much debt are you carrying? Are you caught in a cycle of always shopping with credit, still paying off past purchases, unable to get caught up? Are you saddled with a mortgage that is more than you can really afford because you just had to have the bigger house? How does your financial future look? Are you able to save for a rainy day? Your kid's education? Your own retirement?
Even trying to keep up with our neighbors has taken on a new spin in the modern era. Thanks to the advent of the "global society," the Joneses are not just the folks next door anymore. They include movie stars and billionaires and imaginary people on TV that don't even really exist. And unrealistic though it may be, we hold these images up as the standard against which we should measure our own lives. I'll simply suggest that, when you start comparing yourself with Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey (or even the cast of your favorite sitcom), you're just asking for trouble!
It's so easy to create an endless list of "wants" (disguised as "needs") and end up in a vicious cycle of working-spending-acquiring-desiring -- but you're bound to experience some negative side-effects. You know that your spending priorities are out of whack if you feel stress, guilt, or anxiety every time you pull out your wallet -- it can even affect your health. And just think about how many personal relationships are strained (even broken) over money issues. Is that really how you want to live? The trick is to strike a balance between the two, always focusing on those things that will most mprove your quality of life. For example, you may set a goal of retiring early -- but at the same time, you are also looking to buy a house. You could choose the million-dollar McMansion with all the bells and whistles, or you could opt for the smaller, less-expensive bungalow that still meets all of your basic needs. You just have to ask yourself whether it's more important to impress the neighbors, or put some extra cash away in your retirement fund -- then the choice is simple!
So What Do I Do Next?
This all sounds fine and dandy, but how do you start to apply these principles to your own life in a practical way? Begin by making a list of all your wants and needs. Try to be brutally honest about which category each item falls into. Your needs should be your top spending priority -- make sure to catalog those before you consider the first "want" (and here's a hint, needs should include paying off debt and saving for the future!) Then, take a look at your "want" list. Ask yourself how much that purchase will improve your quality of life -- rate each with an "A" for a large improvement down to a "C" for a negligible improvement (and if it will actively detract from your quality of life, cross it off the list!)
Now, take a look at your "A's" -- at this point, don't even worry about the "B's" and "C's" (if we get you to a point where you can have all of your "A" wants, then you can think about the rest.) Try to decide if there is some way you can balance between your high-priority wants and your needs. What are you willing to give up to have something else that you want even more? Where are you able to compromise? Perhaps you can forgo the cup of coffee and a newspaper each morning in order to pay for that vacation to Europe you've always wanted to take. Or buy your designer clothes at the consignment store so you'll have enough left over for those skis you've been dying to get. If you make these decisions based on your own personal priorities (instead of someone else's), you shouldn't go wrong.
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