Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Parsing past purchases: wants vs. needs

A little over a week ago, my blog buddy, Dogs or Dollars, posed for herself the following exercise:
As we begin June, I am endeavoring to identify each of my purchases as either a want or a need. 
I've been mulling this over.  DoD admitted she had difficulty with the exercise.  Who wouldn't?  Perhaps my own life is even harder to shoe-horn into the two wants/needs piles than other peoples'.  For example, we are spending a pile-o-money each month on our adopted children.  Most people don't go around adopting hyper children from the foster care system.  Do we need these kids?  (No).  Do we want these kids?  (For the sake of argument, let's say "Yes").  So is the money we spend on them a need or a want?

What about the money that goes each month to charities and our church?  We don't need to give this money away (in the standard sense of "need"). But my husband and I both believe we have a moral -- even a sacred -- obligation to share what we have.  An "obligation" to do something sounds a lot like a "need" to do it.  And yet I'd hesitate to list this in the need pile.  (Theologically, this is messier still.  We're supposed to give to charity because we're so filled with gratitude that we can't help ourselves -- we just want to give.  So our charitable donations are things we need to want to do.  Yoicks.)

The question is so messy/mushy because there are so many different meanings of the word "need" or "obligation".  Here are some examples.
  • Immediate physical needs:  food, clothing, shelter.
  • Physiological needs:  exercise, for example.  If N-son is prone to overweight, do I "need" to pay to put him on a sports team?
  • Emotional needs:  There have been times when it just made the rest of my life bearable once again when I spent some money taking a vacation, or paying someone else to do a job I just couldn't face myself.
  • Spiritual Needs: as mentioned above.
  • Social needs:  On this front, I'll list lunches and dinners with friends as coming pretty darn close to "need", or maybe even "obligation".  For me, it's an important part of keeping a community strong and connected.
  • Legal obligations (like paying taxes and certain registration fees).
  • Societal obligations:  Maybe on my own I'd be willing to wear the same ratty clothes day after day, but in order to conform to the people around me, I launder my clothes.  We paint and repair houses and spend time (if not money) on yard work for similar reasons.
  • Moral obligations:  If I break my neighbor's vase, I have a moral obligation to pay for that.
There are also, I'll point out, "delusional needs", those desires masquerading as wants.  They're easier to spot coming from my kids --- "but Mom, I need money to buy snacks at the pool!" --- but I'm know I'm guilty of those, too.  (Pay no attention to that strawberry stem remover in the corner!)

I guess what I'm saying is that wants vs. needs is not some sliding scale going from 0 to 10, with 0 representing sheer frivolity and 10 representing life-or-death choices.  It can be a good exercise to try to plunk financial choices down along this scale, but it's not going to be an easy exercise.

Mathematicians would say this is not a "linear" question, it's a multidimensional one.  [As an aside, a college ranking book once listed Cal Tech as the least "fun" college in the nation.  One Cal Tech student, asked what he thought about that ranking, answered in true math-nerd fashion, "Fun is not linear."  Yes.]

As far as the question "Is this a want or a need?" goes, it might be more reasonable to ask, "In what way do I need to buy this?"  But even that, I think is the wrong question (at least for me).

More on this tomorrow.


  1. I'm so glad to know that I'm not the only one who struggles with the concept of need vs. want. Very well said. Thanks.

    1. Struggle, indeed! It's hard enough to wonder whether I "should" or "should not" do something, but I'm often not sure what "should" means! - MM