What You Need vs. What You Want and How to Tell the Difference

By Sarah Winfrey on 11 January 2008 18 comments
Photo: Mark Wheadon

"But Mo-om, I want it!" How many times have you heard that in the grocery store, or the toy store, or anywhere else, for that matter? Probably more than you can count. And what do you think when you hear it? That poor parent? Or, thank God that's not me anymore! Or, What is wrong with that child? Most of us go on our way, relieved for some reason. It's not our kid, it's not us, and we don't have to deal with it.

Or don't we? The truth is that, as adults, there are times when we keep ourselves from throwing these sorts of tantrums by buying something we don't need. We see an item, feel the same desperate need that child felt, and assuage our own feelings by buying the item. We have the power to do that for ourselves as adults. But these are the purchase we often feel guilty about, and one of the main ways to get rid of the guilt is to find a way to classify that purchase as something we do need. Actually, we can do this any time we regret a purchase. (See also: 9 Simple Ways to Stop Imipulse Buying)

So it's time for all of us (and I include myself in this) to grow up, time to stop looking like adults on the outside but acting like chidren on the inside. To do this, we must learn to distinguish between what we need, what we need in certain conditions, and what we want.

Necessary Needs

These are the obvious things that every person needs to stay alive. I include food, water, shelter, and not much else in this category. These are the things without which we would not be alive. You'll notice that I don't include a certain kind of food or shelter here. If you're in a truly desperate situation, spending what money you have on the best food, water, and shelter that you can makes the most sense. If you're in less desperate circumstances, it's up to you to determine what sort of these things would be best for you, on your budget, etc.

Slightly Less Necessary Needs

We each have our own circumstances that dictate some other needs. For instance, in order to keep my job, I need reliable transportation. Since public transport is wretched where I live, that means I need to have a vehicle. Since I don't have a motorcycle license, it means I need to have a car. It doesn't have to be the nicest car, or in the best repair, but it does need to work consistently. I also need a few items of a certain type of clothing, because if I don't dress a particular way, I will lose my job. These aren't basic needs, but they are things that I need in order to be a responsible adult in my life as it currently is. Stay-at-home parents will have these sorts of needs, but theirs will be different than mine. It requires a certain level of maturity to determine what these needs are, but this develops over time and as we put in the effort. (See also: 5 Ways to Snag Budget-Friendly Business Clothes)

Pure Wants

Everything else is a want. Read that again. Everything (every single, little, tiny thing) is a want. They're not needs. Now, there are levels of wants. Some are much nearer to needs than others. For instance, I want a new computer. I could tell you that I need it to do my writing, but that would be a lie. I have a computer that's not dead yet. And if it dies, there are other computers I can use with enough ease that a new machine is not necessary for me to do my job. But a new computer would help. For instance, it would be faster, which would mean that I could do more work in less time. It would also have a must lower chance of crashing, which would mean that my work would be safer, which would also help me immensely. So there are aspects of a new computer that would aid me in legitimate ways. So a computer might be closer to a need for me than, say, that library of GK Chesterton's work that I've been eyeing, or the several new pairs of boots that I know I would enjoy.

It's hard to transition into thinking this way. I know; I've been working on it for months know. It requires us to be ruthless with ourselves, to tell ourselves the truth, no matter how much we don't want to hear it. It requires us to say NO! when we really want to say YES!, and it requires us to value skills that some people don't develop over an entire lifetime. However, in a world where we're constantly bombarded by advertisement, by people telling us what we do and do not need, this ruthlessness is essential to our financial survival. We must constantly evaluate what we see, hear, and even what we think, because only then will we have money to save and complete honesty with ourselves.

Average: 3.1 (8 votes)
Your rating: None

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


18 discussions

Add New Comment

This test helps prevent automated spam submissions.
Guest's picture

The most useful words of wisdom about spending actually came from my credit card company. "Distinguish between wants and needs. Be honest." I cut that out and taped it on my card to remind me.

Guest's picture

Great picture!

Guest's picture


rstlne's picture

Needs can be further categorized by urgency. For example, I know I'll need new pants at some time in the future because the ones I'm wearing are developing holes in the pockets. I didn't have to buy new pants right away, but when I saw the 75%-off clearance sale at Target last night, I just had to get the $6 pants.

Guest's picture

Rstlne funny you mention that as C&A was having a huge clearence sale today and the wife picked up 2 suits and for me a pair of pants all for 80 euros. Can't beat that, best part we paid cash.

Guest's picture

I find it's extremely helpful to have a husband who is as, or maybe even more so, frugal than I am. Lots of times, I'll ask "Should we get xxx?" (that being certain food items, cleaning supplies, movies, clothes... etc) Usually he answers "Maybe later" of which later never comes. Oh well. If we really needed it it gets brought up again and again (like that hand soap we ran out of two weeks ago, hmmm) until it's bought. This helps a lot for when I feel we "need" something, but really just it would just be convenient.

Guest's picture

Great reminder. I am on an online recycling group and I OFTEN get people posting that they DESPERATELY NEED an item such as a treadmill or a little black dress or a houseplant.

It occurs to me that they probably have never known what desperate need feels like, let alone know the difference between needs and wants.

Guest's picture

Great post and reminder. Choosing to say NO to a want is very powerful. it's amazing how quickly you discover that even powerful desires to buy/have something pass when you realize the consequences of buying it.

I think we also need to be careful about how we define our needs. Is it really a need? You mention needing a car because you don't have a motorcycle licence. Rather than getting a car, you could get a motorcycle licence...?

Guest's picture

Motorcycle wreck vs. car wreck. I need intact bones.

Guest's picture

"Do I want it? Do I need it? Can I live without it?
I've used this mantra for years when shopping. It has allowed me to stay simple, live within my needs - and acknowledge that non-physical needs also play a role in my life. In tight financial months, a book is sometimes the best buy for soul food - but certainly not needed for purely getting by! The "shopping mantra" also helped explain shopping and needs to teenagers.

Guest's picture

Isn't it true that most unhappiness comes from wanting those things that we cannot have ? Although, I believe that we don't always want to be happy, to avoid much sadness, wouldn't it be fun to learn to enjoy those things that we can have. A good friend, a sunny day, a warm breeze, a cool drink. Life is so good it seems such a shame that it takes adversity for us to recognize it. Right now I need to breathe but I am also enjoying it greatly. Have a most enjoyable Day.

Guest's picture

Need or want? What about burning desire..?
Wishing alone will never bring results. Most people live a life based on shoulds instead of wants

Guest's picture

carlos cervantes gasca

Guest's picture

that carlos dude sexy

Guest's picture

that kids a pussy

Guest's picture

In our marriage, I'm the penny pincher.

To weight the necessity of an item, I usually ask myself, "What is the consequence of NOT having/buying something?" 99% of the time, the consequence is something I can easily live with. Hence I don't buy much or truly 'need' much. I've been able to save amazing amounts of money this way.

Guest's picture

I struggle with need vs. want all of the time. I appreciate this article as insight and guidance. I buy a lot of things from a thrift store or goodwill so they are considerably less than buying at the mall or department store. I try to buy things that I feel I could sell on ebay to make money and that is how I justify some of my purchases. I guess no matter how much an item costs, we can still justify it's purchase in some way...

Guest's picture

Since making the decision to only spend money on what we need (food, shelter, clothing, medicine and utility bills) we have saved a lot on a VERY small income. Thank you for sharing your point of view it is a huge money saver and a realistic way of looking at life.