Needs vs. Wants

Affordable and Desirable Chart - Arrow and TargetIt seems like a straightforward lesson to teach, right? You either need it or you don’t. Yet much of what we all consider necessary for our everyday life either didn’t exist or wasn’t considered a need just one generation ago.

Some of you may take umbrage at things I consider wants, and that is OK. Everyone has a different take on what is a need vs. a want. Last summer in my Grandma Rie’s Money Camp, we gave the 3 kids advertisements from the Sunday paper and asked them first to identify and cut out things that were needs; and then to do the same with things that were wants.

One of the kids labeled pretty much everything a want, the others had different ideas about different items. Is butter a need or a want? It is food, so maybe a need. You don’t absolutely have to have it, so maybe it is a want.

That same decision holds true with everything. What was a want or a luxury to parents or grandparents may have actually become something most of us consider a need.

I’m one of those ubiquitous baby boomers. Here are things that most in my generation would now consider a need, but that most of our parents didn’t have when we boomers were growing up in their households.

Our needs.

Air conditioning.

Yes, it was available but no, it wasn’t widespread. We got by back then using open windows, fans and attic fans. Now I think I need my central air!

A phone for each person in the house.

Yes, there were phones. Most folks did have one in their house, but some didn’t. Why would you need two or more? We still just have one at our house though.

Two car garages.

Yes, they could have been available but why would anyone want space for more than one car? Most households had only one car. With the two income household came the need for more than one set of wheels and consequently the desire for multiple garages. Many new homes now have 4. We have three.

Credit card balances.

Yes, credit cards were available. According to Credit the Diner’s Club Card was the first of the modern style credit cards to be used and it was available starting in 1950. But most people didn’t carry a balance – at least the folks I knew. Now it is common, but we don’t carry a balance on ours.

More than a 1000 sq foot home.

In 1950, according to MSN Real Estate, the average home size was 983 square feet. One bath and two bedrooms were typical. Would you want to live in a one bath 2 bedroom home now with a family of 4 or 5? Ours is over 2200 square feet.

A TV in every room.

Our parents had TVs (most of them), but typically only one per household. TV was family entertainment and watched as a family. Many homes today have multiple TVs, some have one in pretty much every room. We actually have two now, but only one is hooked up. Our kids bought us a flat screen TV for our 40th Wedding Anniversary and I couldn’t bear to ditch a perfectly good analog set. So now it sits on top the armoire, unplugged and lonely.

Walk in closets.

Closet size in the 1950’s – at least at our house was about 2 feet in depth and about 3 feet wide, with one shelf at the top. Now folks seem to need much more space for their clothing and shoes. Maybe it is because we keep changing sizes (aka getting fat and then hoping to ‘get back into’ those jeans). We don’t have a walk in but our closets are a whole lot bigger (and fuller) than those with which I grew up.

Today, we have many things available to us that weren’t available to our parents (or grandparents). But do you really need to have them all?  These are things which I believe many of us would consider wants instead of needs.

Our wants.

Things you may have (or want) but may not actually need.

Smart phones.

I used to classify cell phones as a want as well, but with the disappearance of pay public phones, I am changing my mind. Smart phones are still a want to me. Some of you may need them for your business however.

3 bathrooms.

Even though the average number of people in a house hold is dropping, we still think we need multiple bathrooms (and some days they sure do come in handy!). I managed with one until I was 30. Now we have two people in our house and three bathrooms!

Home offices.

Yes more folks work from home these days and the tax laws encourage setting aside a space to dedicate to a home office. But do you need a whole room dedicated to it?

200+ TV channels.

I think there is a backlash wave starting against subscription TV – especially with the options now available over the net. Obviously, back in the days of our parents and grandparents, the only TV channels available were the free ones over the air, and they didn’t carry round the clock programming. Anyone remember that ‘off the air’ signal they used to show?

Chef-style kitchens.

Even though most families cooked and ate at home back then, kitchens were pretty basic. Most had a simple stove, a fan on the wall to vent (along with a window), a single sink and a tiny refrigerator. There were few dishwashers, no garbage disposers, trash compactors, granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances or Jenn-air ranges.

Americans eat out 3 – 4 times a week on average, do we really need a fancy kitchen, when we don’t even do that much cooking?

Multiple vehicles.

According to the US Department of Energy:

“Since 1969, the number of vehicles per household has increased by 66% and the number of vehicles per licensed driver has increased by 47%.”

How many vehicles do we really need? Some have 2 or 3 cars, a golf cart, a gator, an all terrain vehicle and a motorcycle!

My parents made do with one for most of their years, even when my brother and I started driving. We had to borrow their car, and they were without one when we did.

Gym memberships.

Many folks have gym memberships now. Heck, I used to go to the Y and work out over lunch. But workout centers really didn’t gain traction until the 1980s – and guess what, our parents were thinner and in better shape on average than we are!

According to Statistic Brain  45.5 million people have a membership and of them, 67% have never – repeat that – never used the gym. Do you really need that gym membership?

Residential swimming pools.

Remember National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Sparky day-dreamed about having a backyard pool. Lots of us apparently do nowadays. According to Aquatic Net, there are around 8 million pools in residential homes as of 2004, not even counting the over 5 million hot tubs. Need or want? To me, a want.


I love my microwave. I need it! I remember trying to defrost meat in a hurry for dinner back in the old days when we didn’t have a microwave…. yuk. And potatoes took an hour! But, really, I could do without it (I just prefer not to).

Personal computers.

OK, I said a smart phone is a want, but what about a computer of some sort at home? Do you think it is a need or a want – along with the internet access that connects us to the world? For me, it is a business need.

With the disappearance of business listings and personal phone numbers in the yellow and white pages, is a computer and internet a need or a want? Is it sufficient to be able to go to a library or school or other facility to use theirs or do we need them at home?

So, readers, shoot me down.  What’s your opinion?  Need or want?


Needs vs. Wants — 15 Comments

  1. I have to have a personal computer for marketing. But I agree that everything else besides food, shelter, medical care,clothes and maybe a car are wants. Can’t ride on the bus everywhere I want and yes, need, to go.

  2. I always discuss the difference between needs and wants to my sister because for me she still don’t know the true meaning of that. Sometimes we had an argument because she insist to buy some things even though it’s not very important. We only have two personal computer in our house. I didn’t wish for an Iphone nor a Samsung but I’m okay with the smartphone already.

  3. I am not a big phone person but I agree that with the absence of pay phones a cell phone is becoming a necessity.

  4. And the want list keeps on coming and coming…
    No, that’s okay, it’s normal and I advise you to want things so that you will work hard at it to get it. But, first complete the needs.

  5. Netflix is a need at this point LoL! I think if push comes to shove, all we need is shelter, some clothing, food, and 1 car (we live in LA – unfortunately, it’s a necessity!) Everything else outside of that is a WANT. If you boil it down, there’s a tone of WANTS that we end up having. We have 2 cars. We have cable – and HBO and Netflix. We have 4 laptops between the two of us (2 personal, 2 work) and 3 smartphones.
    We do live in our condo that’s about 900sq ft – and I think it’s plenty of space, if you know how to navigate through!

    Thank you for reminding me that a lot of our stuff are wants and not needs 🙂 Time for some spring cleaning!

  6. That’s an enlightening article and I must say the knowledge of Needs and their differentiation from Wants is not even clear to grown-ups like us. Most of the time we consider wants as needs and spend unnecessarily on them. I more or less agree with Needs mentioned here. Thanks for writing such a great blog that helps us distinguish between needs and wants. However, I want to point out here that Credit Card balance should not be considered among Needs as we can live without it. That’s my perspective of seeing at credit card though.

  7. Marie, it wasn’t very clear to me where did you draw the line between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. There were few things on your wants list that I’d concider ‘needs’ – like my computer and my gym membership. Vonversely, some of the ‘needs’ are not that important to me. Then again, drawing the lines is a very personal matter; which is what makwes this game a very exciting one.

  8. We live exactly like you said: one car family, no garage, home office yes and each has his/her own cell (smart or not-smart) phone and computer. No A/C, no TV (so no cable) and no gym memberships. We do have a work-out area downstairs and a bike which we all share. Just one bathroom, no luxury kitchen, and no microwave. We also burn our own firewood from fallen wood gathered in the forest (ie. free heat) and cook with natural gas or, if the fire is burning, cook in or on top of the wood stove. Clothes are also more or less needs, and we also shop at the second-hand store for cheap and good quality clothing “wants”. Debt – I have very little; mostly due to my credit card balance from buying online courses which have and continue to help me develop my business.

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