Needs, wants, and not even wants

Photo: Philip Brewer

Hang around with frugality and simplicity types for any length of time and you'll hear a lot about distinguishing between needs and wants. It's come to me, though, that this issue is less interesting than the much more important issue of distinguishing between your wants and those brief, transitory fancies that don't even rise to the level of being true wants.

It's easy to see the "not even" wants after the fact: They're the things that you buy, play with for a day or a week, and then set aside to add to your clutter. For some people they're electronic gadgets. For other people they're toys or shoes or clothes or sports equipment.

Personally, I find it easy to do this with tools of a creative nature--painting and drawing supplies, musical instruments, and so on. It usually happens like this:

I see a work of art that speaks to me; one where I'm impressed not by the virtuosity of the artist's skill but by the way the image captures something in my own experience. When that happens, it occurs to me that I could do my own drawing or painting of a similar subject or on a similar theme. If I followed up by doing some drawing or painting, all would be well. But too often I follow up by buying some paint or ink or paper: stuff I not only didn't need, but that I really didn't even want.

For other people it happens different ways. They buy something because a coworker got one, or because friend praised the thing, or because a mentor told them they needed one, or because a new boyfriend was shocked to hear that they didn't already have one, or because an ex-girlfriend mentioned how cool the thing was, or because a child threw a tantrum, or because a spouse gazed wistfully at one.

The whole purpose of advertising is to produce this reaction: To turn something you don't need (or even really want) into something that have to have--for long enough to get you to make the buy.

I don't have much new to say about resisting your "not even" wants. You've heard a hundred times about waiting a few days and seeing if you still want it.

The classic simplicity book Your Money or Your Life suggests translating all prices into "life energy"--the number of hours you have to work to earn the money to buy the thing. (Be sure to include the extra hours you work to pay the taxes and a share of the hours you spend commuting and the hours you work to buy the work clothes and the hours you spend shopping for work clothes...) If it's worth that, then by all means buy it.

What's worked best for me is to spend some time looking at the things I already own and thinking about why this new thing might be more like the well-worn precious things I use all the time and less like the barely used, never used, no-longer used things that clutter up my apartment.

In fact, it's worth doing that now and then even when you're not thinking about buying something new. After all, setting aside gifts, everything you own is something that you managed to convince yourself, at least for a moment, was something that you wanted. Go through that stuff. Even if all you can think is "What was I thinking?" there's a small education in that. Sometimes, though, you can think, "Wow! That's so cool!" and get it out and use it.

I think I'll go through my art supplies tomorrow, and maybe make some art.

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Guest's picture

"not even wants"...yep I know what you mean. Happens to me occasionally and I want to slap myself side the head. What was I thinking.

Guest's picture

Not watching television does wonders for helping control urges to buy crap. It's not just the explicit ads shown in 30 second commercials, but the implicit ads showcased by all the characters on TV. Who wouldn't want to live their laugh track fueled lives? What better way to do so than to buy the stuff they wear, drive, sit on, play with, etc?

Guest's picture

Patrick, well done. You are slowly climbing into one of my fav. bloggers btw. I always enjoy your articles. This one is no exception.

"not even wants" ugh how I hate these. You buy them thinking you got some new toy, then you're done and go, ugh I don't even want that... It's an impulse buy through and through. It leaves no positive feelings in its wake.


Guest's picture

Thank you so much for this article. My husband is the king of impulse purchases.

The other day I was grocery shopping with my husband. He wanted to buy over-priced orange juice. We went back and forth until he finally gave up on it. I felt bad for denying him something he really wanted. I felt so bad that by the time we got to the other side of the store, I told him he could go back and get it. I apologized. He said, "for what?" I said, "for not letting you get orange juice." He said, "oh, I'd forgotten all about that."

Yeah, needs vs. not-even-really-wants.

Thanks for another great article.

Guest's picture
Ms. Ferret

I hear you. I'm particularly horrible about buying things online. I'll get it into my head that I need some random widget, obsess over it for days, research it online, buy it, compulsively check until it arrives, play with it for a week, then ignore it for several years until it gets donated to the Salvation Army.

I've been using delicious to curb this behavior. Now when I get into the obsessive phase, I'll save the item with a "want" tag instead of buying it. It's easier to put it out of my head knowing that I check the "want" list periodically (vs. consciously trying to not think about something). About 80% of the time I've already reached the "what was I thinking?" stage by the time the "OK to buy" date rolls around, and I seem to actually use the remaining 20% that I end up buying, so it's worked well so far.

Guest's picture

Great post!

One of the questions I ask myself when making a purchase is: "Will this end up in a tag sale in two years?"

Here is part of my purchase decision process:

Guest's picture

Thanks for posting. I've been home bound for the last two months and had time out last night at a strip mall. Maybe it was the contrast. While at home everything was fine. A cup of tea, some good reads, some projects, that's all it took. It struck me, I gotta stay out of stores. All those things I never knew I needed were screaming for attention. No wonder our kids come home from school with the "gotta haves".

Hey, have fun with your art projects! BTW Not sure where you're located, but have you ever heard of Pearl Paint on Canal St. in Manhattan? Great prices.

Guest's picture

The TV is the worst at giving this impression of need. I wish I could get rid of the shopping channels.

My husband switches during the commercials, no matter what program is on to look at Invicta watches.

He practically drools.

Guest's picture

yeah, Target is the place of my weakness for "things I didn't even know I wanted-not even wants". I just go there only if I absolutely have to. Great article!

Guest's picture

...when Paul Michael wrote a much lengthier, and more in-depth article, several months ago. You could have at least linked to it Philip.

Guest's picture

I hear you.

"The classic simplicity book Your Money or Your Life suggests translating all prices into "life energy"--the number of hours you have to work to earn the money to buy the thing."

I guess the only problem with that is that in the moment that's the last thing you feel like doing. You're looking at your shiny new toy and it blinds you from logical thinking, thus leaving you in the original predicament...

I like your idea of looking at the things you already own and seeing them in a new light. I've done that a few times myself and come out with some very useful "used toys" I didn't know I had.


Guest's picture
Edgar A.

Several of the comments mention advertising, especially TV, as leading them astray. I wonder to what degree advertising makes most economic models inoperative. Many of them depend on an informed and rational consumer, but doesn't advertising deliberately lead us astray and play on ancient drives and fears, leaving us misinformed and irrational? Wouldn't it make sense if we want economic theory to match what actually happens to restrict advertising to neutral recitations of facts? Likewise, how can anyone expect anything like a free market to function in the world when advertising, especially the TV programs and newspaper columnists are constantly giving us erroneous information?

To the degree that Wisebread can influence us to work on making rational decisions, that'll be useful to us. But it will probably have to multiply its readership many times to free up those markets.

Guest's picture
rosa rugosa

This is the first time I've seen this reference in this type of article, and it really makes a great point! I'm not really living on the edge, so I can indeed responsibly purchase many of my wants in life. But I'm trying to minimize the less valued ones, and recreational shopping has brought way to many of those "not even wants" into my small home! I'm definitely trying to eradicate those tendencies completely!
I don't watch TV at all, but glossy home & garden magazine ads can be tempting. I find the best strategy for me is to stay out of the stores unless I really need something.