Needs vs. Wants – Which Is Which?

Attention, personal finance readers and gurus!  You think you know the difference between a need and a want – right?  Really, are you sure?

Why do we care about want vs. need?

Most financial literacy courses and parents in the know believe that teaching the difference between something you need and something you want is key in being able to control spending and thrive financially.  Parents start teaching this concept when a child is a toddler and continue to try to drill it in all the way through the teen and college years.

What is a want?

I think most of you would agree that a ‘want’ is an object, experience or item that is not vital to your life – something  you could do without.  An example of a ‘want’ is your toddler lusting after the Baby Alive! Doll.

What is a need?

Likewise, I believe you would agree that a ‘need’ is something that is vital to your life – something you cannot do without.  A lot of you would classify indoor plumbing, central heat, grocery money and gasoline as ‘needs’.

But wait, are they really always needs? Absolutely not!

My Grandmother was born in 1898.  She lived on a farm.  The house did not have running water, central heat, or electricity.  A lot of times, she didn’t use grocery money either.  Each morning, she pumped the well pump to fill a bucket with water to use for washing hands, drinking and cooking that day.  On wash day, she built a wood fire out in the yard under a big iron cauldron to heat water to wash her clothing.  She raised her own fruits and vegetables, kept chickens for meat and eggs, cows for milk and cream and lambs for wool and meat.

In winter, she and Grandpa cut ice from the pond and put it in the ice house to try to save it for summer. Three rooms were sufficient to heat in the winter – the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom.  Other rooms were closed off.  If it got too hot in the house in the summer, they carried their bed outside and slept in the summer breezes.

She didn’t need to pay utility bills – wood for heat and cooking was obtained from the farm.  Water was drawn from the well.  Light was obtained from oil lamps (and yes, she did need to buy that oil).  Food was preserved by canning, drying or storing in a cool cellar or the ice house.  If she wanted to talk to someone, she walked on over and had a conversation, or hitched the mule up to the wagon and rode over. The double seat outhouse worked fine during the day and a chamber pot worked for us kids at night in the house.

In her early and middle adulthood, her environment allowed her to consider our ‘necessities’ as ‘wants’ instead of ‘needs’. What did she think about these things:  Indoor plumbing?  Don’t need it, we’ve used an outhouse all our lives. Telephone?  Don’t need it, but it is nice to have – now we can listen in on our neighbor’s phone calls and talk to them anytime! Electricity – it’s great to have, but we did fine most of our lives without it! A car?  Wow, what a luxury!

In today’s world these things probably are really ‘needs’ for most of us.  Our environment does not really permit using outhouses in crowded city living areas.  Most of us don’t have access to enough wood to keep ourselves warm during winter months.  Our livelihoods depend on us being able to get back and forth to work and most of us live too far away to walk, bike or ride our horse.

Your environment defines what is considered a ‘need’.

My Grandmother lived in a different environment and had different needs than I.

The Amish, due to their chosen simple lifestyle, probably have a somewhat different perspective than most of us on what is considered a need vs  a want.

If you live in Arizona, you probably think air conditioning is a need, but if you live in Wisconsin, perhaps not.  If you live in Switzerland, you may think a pair of snow ski’s are a need, but if you live in Florida, perhaps not.

What is a need?  For humans, the most basic needs are air to breathe, some kind of food to eat and water to drink.  Secondary needs are shelter, a way to keep warm and a band of brothers to hang with for protection.  For anything beyond these to be considered a need  – you should examine your environment to determine if it really is a need for you.

The moral of this little post is that you should look closely at the things you are teaching your children as ‘needs’ and help them understand that at times the ‘need’ may actually be a ‘want’.

What do you consider a ‘want’ that most others consider to be a ‘need’?

This post was written by Marie. 



Needs vs. Wants – Which Is Which? — 25 Comments

  1. I believe cell phones are a WANT…not a need.

    Many people use excuses like “but I have to have one for work” or “I need one in case of an emergency”.


    If you HAVE to have a cell phone for work- then your company should pay for it…period. If it is a REQUIREMENT to be available 24/7 as part of your job duties- then the company can fork over the cash.

    I don’t buy the “emergency” excuse either. I can get a $10 phone and purchase a $20 pre-paid card that will last 90-120 days before I have to buy another card.

  2. Daisy, for me cell phones (and maybe even a regular phone) are not a need, but for you it sounds like having a phone is a need. But is the need for a cell phone, a satelite phone or a landline – or maybe just an internet connected to a computer or a tablet?

    Cars, for me, are a need. We would have a really hard time where we live using cabs. There are no buses close by. We use the cars to get groceries – which satisfy a basic need. Of course I guess we could have them delivered….hmmmm….it gets gray doesn’t it?

    • Sounds like there are some gray areas where certain categories fall closer to a need for some people and fall closer to a want for some people.

      For me, mobile cell phone is a need. I don’t own a home phone nor a car. I use my cell phone to check bus arrivals in real-time so I can budget my time wisely instead of waiting for a bus that shows up one hour later.

      You win some and you lose some.

  3. So much truth in that. What I consider a need would have been an unimaginable luxury just 40 years ago.

    And did you read the fellow Yakezie blogger who highlighted that the federal government has deemed cell phones a right?

  4. And the sad part to this is – if the western world had to revert to those same days (like they still do in parts of India, Asia and Africa), the needs of today would definitely take on a new meaning. I can see the meaning of your post.

  5. I have a big problem with the PF mantra of distinguishing between needs and wants and not seccumbing to the latter.Exactly because, strictly speaking, our needs are always very basic and there is always an overlay of wants that coat them. Having food is a need; where does the want in this respect begin? Does it begin with what we eat or where we eat? Is it how we eat? Wearing clothes is a need (keeps us warm)but beyond this it is wants.

    Problem is that what distinguishes us from animals is our wants – we share needs. So instead of repeating ‘know thy needs from thy wants’ we probably should start saying ‘control your wants’.

  6. I completely agree. We were just talking about this the other day…BF was scolding me that I need to remember to ALWAYS grab my cell phone when I am on my way out the door. He’s right. For safety’s sake.
    I knew he was right, but I countered anyways with, “What did we all do 15 years ago when hardly anyone had cell phones? Or 25 years ago…when no one did? Did we walk out the door shaking with fear?”
    Again, he’s right, but I think the point you make is beyond valid.

  7. Well, if you are paying for a cell phone, feel you need it for protection and don’t mind being instantly locatable by someone who can track it, then why wouldn’t you carry it.

    What we did 15 years ago was pull into a shopping center or a gas station and use a pay phone (how many pay phones do you still see, we don’t have many).

    What we did 25 years ago was rely on the kindness of strangers. I think we can, for the most part, still do that – except that folks are now afraid to stop and help others because they fear it is a trap or a ruse.

    I don’t have a cell phone. I am not afraid.

  8. In this day and age it is really hard to to determine a want from a need. However, because of the way this world is today this is how I see it. I believe cell phones are a need for most people. I agree also because I thrive to be the best business owner I can possibly be. And in order to be the best you must communicate (just like we do on our blogs), and what is more effective than a cellphone?

      • Meeting face to face would obviously work, but i wouldn’t say its more effective. At times, yes. Other times, no. It is just a lot less convenient, especially as a busy business owner.

        Cell phones in particular may NOT be a need, but phones in general ARE. The only difference is that i choose to pay for a cellphone instead of a home phone or a pay phone. Therefore, a cellphone is actually a NEED if you choose to WANT it over the alternative.

        Either way, what a good article, i truly enjoyed it.

  9. It really depends… Needs easily turn into wants when you choose the more luxurious options for example… But anyway it is a personal choice and it’s all a matter of control and being to balance needs and want according to your budget priorities.

  10. I consider TV a want – and have lived without it for 11 years now. Most that I sit down to work out a budget with consider it a need and wouldn’t even consider going without it.
    Also, a lot of things we have that are true needs have features that are wants that could be eliminated or reduced if needed.

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