Needs Versus Wants — When Is Enough Enough?

One of the entrances to the Retiro Subway Stat...
A subway station in Buenos Aires...a place I very much want to visit someday! Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in The New York Times by a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah:

One of the most challenging personal finance issues we all face is the ever-expanding definition of “need.” Things we once considered clear luxuries have somehow becomes necessities, often without any consideration of how the change in status happened.

Cars that seemed just fine now seem old fashioned. Then there are children and their cellphones. Only a few years ago it would’ve seemed outlandish for 14-year-olds to need one at all, let alone the latest iPhone.

Achieving clarity about the difference between our needs and wants remains one of the biggest challenges in personal finance and a tremendous source of potential conflict within families. While simple in theory, the calculation is much more complex in practice.

One of the most discouraging parts of modern life seems to be this never-ending sense that we should want more.

And a front-page piece in The Wall Street Journal, examines how much less Americans are buying.

I’ve lived in a one-bedroom apartment, with limited closet space, (which I share and in which I work), since 1989. There just isn’t a lot of room for a lot of stuff. I admit it, we do have several storage lockers…

But I’m not typically crazed about buying more stuff. I hate malls, don’t really find shopping very interesting and have been living, since losing my staff job in 2006, on less than a third of what I then earned — while all our costs have risen considerably, whether bridge tolls, gas or food.

My greatest indulgence is objects for our home, whether the folk art black horse I bought last month in Ontario or the transferware plates I collected in the 1990s before they became trendy and expensive. I look at all those plates and think — really? Then we had a party last week with 34 guests and I had plenty of tableware and serving pieces and was happy not to resort to Chinet or paper.

We only upgraded last year to a flat-screen television — which Jose bought while I was away, knowing I’d say (truthfully) we did not need a new TV and our huge black 1988-Sony Trinitron was just fine. Which it was.

So it’s an interesting battle for any of us with disposable income (and deeply grateful for it!) — what do we really need and what do we (only) want?

And when is it OK to give in to the latter?

I’m at a point in my life I want, more than anything, things or experiences that are damn expensive. Because we’re lucky enough to own (and maintain) the basics, whether a good laptop or decent cookware.

But I seriously crave annual (or more) overseas travel, although I can’t say I need it.

In a weird way, I sort of like not having a ton of money — precisely because obsessing about buying more and more stuff is really not workable. We drive a paid-off vehicle and live well in a small-but-lovely home we own, (albeit with a mortgage.) I’m still able to save 15 to 20 percent of my diminished income every year. (We also have no kids, which saves us $10,000 per child annually.)

I’m also at a point in my life, mid-50s, where the things I most want are not things one can actually buy.

— I’d really like to find a way to double, if not triple my income in order to truly beef up our retirement savings.

— I’d like my half-brother, after years of refusing to acknowledge my existence, to get a grip and deal.

— I’d like my mother to realize the three women currently showering her with attention, (she is addled, starved for attention, isolated, old and rich), may not be quite as benignly devoted as she is persuaded they are…

And so on.

What you want more than anything right now?

What do you need?

Or is it also something you can’t obtain with money?

22 thoughts on “Needs Versus Wants — When Is Enough Enough?

  1. The first thing that comes to mind is my brother and I want AND need the family house to sell. It will be a big load off our backs, and help both of us to pay off some debt.
    Then I need my house to sell so I can get moved to the place which is HOME to me, gives me a sense of peace, makes me feel inspired, energized, and motivated. 🙂

    In the meantime, I am grateful for the blessings I have, for enough finances to pay the bills and eat; a vehicle paid for and which I enjoy driving.

  2. Hi, I absolutely agree! And I think ‘need’ and ‘want’ have been conflated in recent years. My take is that both are symptoms of the wider misappropriation in the last generation of ‘status’, which these days seems to be equated more with transient displays of bling than with intangible actions, deeds or values.

    In New Zealand there was always a myth of equal incomes; the country took pride in being egalitarian middle class. Actually there were wealthy people – but most didn’t show it, and quite deliberately so. I remember visiting one of New Zealand’s wealthiest businessmen when I was writing a book on the national timber company he’d helped found. He was a multi-millionaire, but he lived in a modest three-bedroom house with throws over the couch to cover the wear marks. He had an ordinary (ie: old) car that any Kiwi might buy. And that was typical. The aspiration for much of the twentieth century was to have a reasonable three-bedroom house, two cars, three kids, a ‘bach’ – beach house – and a small boat. A fair number did that, and also did it without unreasonable debt. At which point they stopped trying to earn so much.

    But the ‘yuppie’ period of the 1980s let the status genie out of the bottle. Suddenly, and like everybody else, Kiwis had to show status via displays of ‘stuff’. Mostly cars. There was actually an attitude by some that this bling made them ‘better’ than those without. Personally I thought it made them more arrogant, but maybe that was just me..

    The thing is, as you point out, there is more to being rich than wallowing in cash and what it buys. Things like caring for others – and knowing we are cared for. Things like expressing kindness and tolerance. Things that mean something to us and our immediate families. These sorts of virtues. I don’t know whether it’s just those of us entering their fifth decade who happen to think that way. Maybe…

    Matthew Wright

    1. This is really interesting…I grew up in Canada, which had similar values about how vulgar it was (and is!) to display one’s wealth. I live in a NYC suburb where so doing is de rigueur.

      I recently attended a NYC book party where (!) two men felt compelled to tell me that they work for The New Yorker, had attended Harvard and had sold a best-selling book. I care…because? The status assertion is endless and truly silly.

      Wealth has never impressed me. My family has had plenty of dough and many have behaved atrociously. I care more for personal values (like courage, honesty and compassion) lived daily…

  3. Cold Song

    It seems there is a zeitgeist right now regarding minimalism and downshifting: people trading things (or even status) for flexibility, simplicity and independence.

    What I want more of:

    More time. Money can sometimes buy that, but not always
    More bravery. This is something that money cannot buy.

    I think people often assume they need more than they do. It is a matter of what we are accustomed to. The houses in the areas were I grow up were enormous by most European standards. The space always seemed to fill up with things, no matter how large the houses were, or how few people lived in them. Most of the houses seemed poorly constructed, too, not meant to last 100 years.

    It seems like with things, housing and food we would also do well to follow your advice on fashion: fewer, smaller, less, but better quality!

    1. I have not lived in a house, (and it was still in an apartment there), since 1988 when I lived in a New Hampshire town for 18 months.

      I grew up in a Toronto house with my Dad, ages 15-19, and when I was little in a big house, but my parents split up when I was 6 or 7 and after that, it was all apartments and boarding school…I would indeed love to own and live in a (small, old) house, with a fireplace and verandah, but would always prefer to have less and better than huge, empty and mediocre. The town we live in, north of NYC, has tiny little 1950s houses for $500,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes and no land. No thanks!

      Time is the trade-off between income and…time. I could (maybe) find a fulltime job and be on someone else’s clock but would lose so much of my personal time. Yet it’s the only way I foresee being ever able to truly boost my income to the level I need to be able to save $20k+ a year…not $2-5,000 which I am able to do now.

      Bravery…Hmmmm. I think having encouragement helps a lot. I have a ferocious agent and a very supportive husband. That helps me. Maybe you just need a courageous wingman or two?

  4. I’ve been putting it off for years but what I really want is a DSLR camera. I cannot justify the expense just yet but someday when I have more time on my hands, I will indulge I’m sure.

    Although I think it’s important to be frugal with your income and to not over indulge in purchasing gadgets to keep up with the Jones I also believe it’s important to occasionally reward yourself with stuff that you truly desire otherwise you can become disheartened by working hard with minimal return.

    1. Absolutely! I think a camera is one of the neatest things you can possibly own — think of all the memories you capture and all the beauty you can reap. We have photos framed all over our home, from Canada, Mexico, France and just down the road. (My husband and I are both photographers.)

      I don’t mean never buy anything, but to be thoughtful about what you do acquire. I love well-made objects and treasure the ones I own. This is the first year in five that, finally, I have been able to really splurge again on some nice non-necessary things, like framing art and photos and some new (to us) antiques. I know very well what it’s like to work too hard and never feel you’re getting anything pleasurable from it.

  5. I want to be with J. in London.
    I need to be here to help him out.
    Money could solve it, I suppose, but we prefer to use it pay off student loans.

    Truthfully, I don’t NEED any THINGS. All things considered we’re pretty well set up and could live frugally but comfortably for a while on my (smallish) salary alone. I confess to liking pretty clothes, but I stay within a strict budget and am good about making my things last a long time, and buying classics.

    My family had money growing up, but we lived in government accommodations mostly (which anyone can tell you can be minimal at best) so we tended to put our money towards traveling. My parents each have a couple of indulgences (Mum grew up in Japan and collects Asian antiques, Dad traveled to the Middle East a lot and acquired an impressive collection of rugs and carpets) but we’ve always been rather good with money. They used it to buy a house and 20 acres after retirement, and put Mum through Cambridge so she can teach university now that the kids are mostly gone and Dad can live in the country.

    I like how their plans worked out. I’d much rather use my extras (time, money, attention) for experiences for me, family, and friends, and things that I find personally meaningful rather than dump it into tasteless overindulgence.

    1. Your family and mine sound quite similar in outlook and values. I grew up in a home filled with terrific art pieces (Asian, native American, prints, lithos, etchings — and my Dad’s own work) but we always drove decent used cars and were not into Labels. Travel was always where we wanted to spend our additional income.

      I never understand the thinking behind blowing $1500 on a handbag or pair of shoes (ostensibly to prove how much $$$ and taste you have) when you could have a fantastic travel experience — or a not-bad Persian rug (small!) for the same amount.

  6. I want to be able to pay my bills. I want to be able to help others that are less fortunate than myself. I want to travel to cities and towns and experience different cultures so I can have a better understanding of the world around me. I am at this point unable to do any of the above, and hope to change that in the near future.

    1. Being unable to even pay your bills is terrifying. I have never, thank God, been there; for years my bills were minimal enough (for NYC-area) but I still had to handle every single of them alone and freelance. My family has never once (and they’re loaded) offered me a dime.

      You can (possibly) help others less fortunate, even with no extra $$$. I’ve been a Big Sister and sit on two volunteer boards. I give my time, intelligence and talents even when I cannot write a check.

      I wish you all the luck you need to achieve these!

  7. I agree. Sorry you are feeling so beleaguered and I know exactly how this is…having lived like this for years as well.

    This is the first year — also in five — I have finally been able to spend a little extra money without having a panic attack that it was for something frivolous (and therefore extra-enjoyable!) and not the boring, endlessly more costly “basics.”

    Thanks to the relative success of “Malled” — the irony being I worked for $11/hr for 27 months PT to do the research to be able to write it with authority — this has been a better year. But not a $$$$$$ better year.

    When you’re used to living frugally, even a little extra is very very welcome.

  8. Okay, maybe it’s because I’m hormonal and sitting her with my monthly bar of chocolate, but the last two items on your list made me cry. I hope you and your family find some peace.

    And with my first sentence said, what I want is for my Dad to be settled and happy. I want to call Neil my husband, and get married for more than the day, and for the next 386 years. I wish with all my heart that my Grandparents were still of this Earth, and they could see us get married and hold my babies.

    My life would be easier if my mother understood that I choose to live here, and she didn’t trample old ground and my heart every chance she gets. I’d like to go back to New York more than once every five years.

    I need to finish a book and send it away, because I’m not happy doing anything else. Period.

    Not much to ask, is it?

    PS. Please don’t tell Neil about the Bridezilla bits. I’ll wink at you at my Reception. Whenever that may be.

    1. Thanks, sweetie…I am so used to my family being a screwed-up pile of anger, this is nothing new, so it probably reads (as it is) as somewhat shocking and sad, but I see little hope of improvement…

      Neil best step up, then, eh? :-)!!!

  9. It sounds corny but my wonderful neighbour has motor neurone disease and he is one of the kindest men we have ever met. Seeing the advanced stages of this awful disease makes our family want for nothing other than good health.

    1. So true! We lost 12 (!) friends, family and colleagues within two years and we felt like we were in some weird mortality foxhole, with bullets whizzing right past our heads. I’m so sorry for your neighbor! We watched someone like that, my age, die of ovarian cancer and it was heartbreaking.

  10. I have really enjoyed this and the comments that followed. I find that people measure success on the terms of their own ambitions. I have my own thank you, that since I took stock about ten years ago involved less money and more life. We work hard at our business and live as we choose. It still amazes me that some people we know find it hard to understand I want more time, not more money and things. We travel, we spend time with friends and family, and we have experiences. That is real value to me.


    1. Thanks!

      I am SO with you on this. You can buy everything in this world…but time. People often fail to see how very precious it is. I would rather (and do) earn less money and have more time for the people and ideas I care about, as you have chosen.

  11. Today is so-called “Black Friday.” I have read stories of shopping riots and even of a woman pepper spraying a crowd in a fit of greedy consumerism. Happy holidays?

    Your post reminded me of a recent post of my own. How Much Is Enough?

    I hope more and more thoughtful souls find a satisfactory personal answer to these important questions. What are my needs versus my wants? and How much is enough?

    Thanks for your post.

    Andy Dix
    Author, Motivational Speaker, HPT
    “Life Matches: Fire Up Your Life!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s