How often do the words “I need” come out of your mouth? If you’re like my husband, probably every five seconds! I need a Coke, I need a new VCR , 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?
WHAT IS A NEED?
Let’s start by defining need. In the strictest sense of the word, a need is something that you have to have to get by in this world, a NECESSITY. You need food, shelter, clothing, medical care , the basics. You will probably experience physical suffering of some sort if you don’t have your needs met.
A want, on the other hand, is something that you desire, something you would like to have. 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.
MAKING THE DISTINCTION
The hard part comes when you live in a prosperous capitalistic society, like ours. The western standard of living is so high that even many of our poor tend to live above the level of basic needs. In 1998, 97% of poor Americans (as defined by the Census Bureau) owned a television, something that could definitely be considered a luxury. In many third-world countries, less than 30% of the population even has access to electricity , which most westerners would consider an absolute necessity. My intention is not to make anyone feel guilty, 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 POWER OF ADVERTISING
We are influenced, every day, by the popular culture around us. Television, magazines, movies, and advertising have all done a splendid job of programming us to think that we need a lot of excess consumable goods. Pretend that you are watching TV or flipping through your favorite magazine and see an ad for something fabulous. Suddenly, your heart 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 to the store, what?! You don’t have any left in stock?! Your heart sinks and you feel a rush of disappointment. You spend the rest of the day moping because you couldn’t find it anywhere.
Now, this might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not far off the mark for some people. How often have you learned of a new product and were certain that you absolutely had to have it? What if you had never seen the ad? Would your life be any worse off? It’s as if the knowledge that something exists causes the need for it.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
And, of course, we have peer pressure! But with the advent of the global society, the Joneses are not just the people next door anymore. They include movie stars and billionaires and imaginary people on TV that don’t even really exist. But we hold these folks up as the standard against which we should measure our own lives. Just because Bill Gates has a multi-million dollar house, we think ours is too small. And since the cast of Ally McBeal dress so cool and hip, maybe we need a new wardrobe.
THE HIGH COST OF NEEDS
So why is any of this a problem? Let me ask you a confidential question, how much debt are you carrying? Do you have several thousand (or tens of thousands!) dollars of past credit card purchases that you are still trying to pay off? 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? When your spending priorities are out of whack, you tend to experience stress, guilt, and anxiety, 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 your life?
BALANCING NEEDS AND WANTS
Certainly, no one is suggesting that you give away everything you own and become a monk! But it is important that you strike a balance between those things that you have to have and the things that you would like to have. And it’s important that you be able to PRIORITIZE your spending. The goal is to focus on those things that will really improve your quality of life , rather than just look flashy.
Here’s a perfect example of prioritizing between two wants. Wouldn’t it be nice to retire early , not have to work, spend your time doing what you want? And let’s say that while you are thinking about retiring early, you are also looking to buy a house. You could choose choose the $500,000 home with 10 bedrooms, or you could choose the smaller, less-expensive house that meets all of your basic needs. If you choose the expensive home, you can probably kiss retiring early goodbye. But, if you decide that retiring early would improve your QUALITY OF LIFE more than having a huge flashy house, your choice is simple!
SO WHAT DO I DO NEXT?
Start by making a list of all your wants and needs. Try to be brutally honest about which category they fall into. Then, take a look at the items in your want list. First, ask yourself how much each purchase will improve your quality of life. Rate them 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!) 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.
Now, take a look at your A’s, 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? Where are you able to compromise? Perhaps you can forego 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 how the purchase will improve your life , based on your own personal priorities (instead of someone else’s!) you shouldn’t go wrong.
Ramona Creel is a Professional Organizer, NAPO Golden Circle Member, and the original founder of Online Organizing. A former Social Worker, she has always enjoyed helping people find the resources and solutions they need to improve their lives. Her website is www.RamonaCreel.com, and you can follow her on Twitter, check out her Facebook profile, and subscribe to her blog feed.