Do You Really “Need” That? Or Do You Just “Want” It?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 15 comments

wants vs needs

The difference between defining something as a need or a want can mean the difference between a blown budget or a healthy savings account.

These terms seem so simple and easy to understand, but all too often, we blur the lines. When you say you “need” something, it should mean that you literally can’t continue to function without it. Unless we’re talking about the need to eat, be clothed, stay healthy, and have a bed to sleep on, most of the “needs” in life actually fall under the category of “want.”

It’s funny how we reason with ourselves until we’re convinced that something we want is actually something we need. I need a new purse for summer. I need a manicure. I need new shoes.

In this case, our definition of need becomes anything we want desperately enough that our personal happiness will be hindered without it.

This is a cultural trait; we feel the need to measure up to those around us, to keep up with the current trends, to have the coolest car, the nicest house, or the most elaborate wedding. Although there’s nothing wrong with gratifying some of our wants as our circumstances and finances allow, it’s dangerous to categorize every new thing we want as a need.

Before we know it, our budgets grow, then blow; our credit cards are maxed; and we can’t afford our lifestyle.

Learning to distinguish between wants and needs is a complex skill that takes continuous reinforcement, especially when immersed in our materialistic society. With that in mind, here are three questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether something is a want or a need:

wants vs needs1. “First of all, do I need it?”

There’s a category in my budget for “miscellaneous needs.” This category is purposely vague to account for needs that arise, but don’t fall under any other budget category.

It would be easy to start using this as just another excuse to blow money — but the distinguishing factor when determining whether to use this category or “fun money” is whether the item is an actual need. If the answer is yes, move on to the next question. If it’s no, skip ahead to the third question.

2. Do I need it now?

This is where planning comes in. Yes, you may need something, but you might be able to wait a few weeks or months to purchase it.

For instance, I need new running shoes since my current shoes are worn out, which puts me at a risk for injury. I don’t need them today, but I’ll need them before I start putting in more mileage this spring. This is a necessary purchase I can plan for, instead of something I need to satisfy right now (even though I may want to).

Learning to put a maturity and expiration date on our needs is important for budgeting effectively. If emergency needs come along, it’s helpful to have funds designated for them, but we should be able to plan for the rest of our needs.

3. If I don’t need it, why and how badly do I want it?

Sometimes I’m afraid to admit I don’t need something, because I don’t want to feel deprived. Well, the truth is, I don’t have to deprive myself of all my wants. Life would be pretty depressing if we never spent money on things we enjoyed. But it’s also a good idea to ask why and for what purpose we want things.

If the answer is too often for personal enjoyment, this is spending we may need to work on keeping in check. Sometimes we want things for more altruistic reasons, and sometimes we want things for personal development. These are wants we can allow to be fulfilled more frequently than ones that only benefit ourselves.

What’s one “need” you spent money on recently? And one “want”?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Danielle Ogilve says:

    “Our definition of need becomes anything we want desperately enough that our personal happiness will be hindered without it.” — I cannot agree with that statement enough! Our definition of need has to be recalibrated to actually fit the category of “need”

  • James Salmons says:

    Our lives are shaped by the way we think, and your post deals with one of the most important of our financial attitudes even if there is not so much of an awareness of it for the most part.

    After several years of a flat line in debt growth following the financial setback in our economy, during the last quarter of 2013 there was remarkable growth. A lack of control in spending is at the heart of it and our attitude toward wants and needs accounts for a great deal of the problem. Anything we can do to turn around this trend is worthwhile.

    It is amazing how quickly how quickly wants become needs in people’s minds. I hear people say things like, “I really need a cell phone,” all the time. Rarely is it so. Hopefully your readers will be challenged to adopt a more productive attitude. I, for one, appreciate the reinforcement of this principle.

  • Jayashree says:

    I always ask the question whenever I make a purchase if this is a must buy or nice to have buy and if the answer is nice to have buy I skip that purchase until it becomes a must buy purchase.

  • Marie @ My Personal Finance Journey says:

    This is what I said to my sister, I really hate it when she keeps on buying clothes and things even if she didn’t need it. We always had an argument every time I told her about the “Joneses” attitude problem.

    • David @ says:

      As a saver, I have the same problem. I want to tell them how much that reckless habit is costing him/her, but I now try to just shut up since no one really appreciates it and the conversation just leads to resentment.

  • M. Catlett says:

    Very little of what we – or perhaps I should say I – purchase is actually needful. I’ve found that I tend to feel better purchasing things that are specifically produced in a humane manner under good working conditions, and/or for things for my son. But it can be just a rationalization backing up wasting money! This article is right on, I need to circle back to basics. Thank you.

    • David @ says:

      There’s nothing wrong with buying things, even if it’s a want. The problem arises when people spend way more than they can afford. So if you can comfortably pay for things without derailing your retirement plan, then I say “go ahead” with the purchase. Otherwise, pause just a second and realize that you are trading your future for the current and that you’ll eventually have to pay up!

  • Property Marbella says:

    Our “want” these days is temporary pleasure or comfort to relieve problems and stresses we have in today’s busy life. We also created “want” to compete against our friends and neighbors.

    • David @ says:

      The “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is really strong in our neighborhood. I read somewhere that people on average spend 110% of their incomes over here, which is nuts.

      Do we REALLY want it THAT much?

  • David @ Simple Money Concept says:

    I recently had encounter with my 3.5-year old daughter regarding need vs. want. We were at this lotion store, and she picked up this pink bottle and said, “I need this.” I said, “do you need it or do you want it?” She said, “I need it.” I asked her why she needed it because we already have a big bottle of lotion at home. She actually said, “the one we have at home is big. This one is small. I can carry the small one in my pocket.” …I bought the lotion…

  • David @ says:

    Sometimes we just convince ourselves everything is a necessity when “nice-to-have” is a more appropriate description.

    – Cars were never part of culture until the last century, but people think they can’t go anywhere without one.
    – Dishwashers weren’t available until fairly recently, but no one seems to think the earth will continue to rotate unless theirs is working.
    – Smartphones didn’t exist 10 years ago, but everyone thinks they won’t have any friends unless they are on theirs 24/7.

    “But we need it!!” Yeah… right…

  • The Wallet Doctor says:

    This is a very important element of keeping a happy and healthy budget. The simple act of pausing and checking in with yourself about want versus need can really help reduce those extra pointless purposes. Thanks for the breakdown!

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