Wednesday, August 6

Do you know the difference between want and need?

Okay, well obviously the best way to be frugal is to not spend money.

Sound too simple? Of course it is. You have to spend money eventually. A human has needs... But how many of your purchases are actually needs?

Humans have three basic, obvious needs:

1. Housing: Most of us aren't willing to be homeless or live in our cars.
2. Clothes: Other than certain communities, nudity is verboten in public.
3. Food: It's kind of important, and there just aren't many dumpster divers

Beyond these, how much do you actually need?

This is a real question, not a criticism. I certainly have a lot of luxuries that I don't strictly need.

But people have a disturbing tendency I've noticed lately to call things "needs" that just aren't, well, necessary.

Why do we do this?

I'm sure part of it is cultural habit. America is a country that prides itself on a certain amount of ostentation. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is a cliche for a reason. The average person wants to have the biggest and best toys -- or at least the same ones that other guy has.

This has lead to a distortion in distinguishing between real need and simply wanting something. Remember when you were a kid and you needed something? I mean needed it. And what happened? Usually, your parents told you no. You were sure you'd wither and die from deprivation. But, since you're reading these words, clearly you were able to tough it out.

Most of us can easily recall the pain of wanting something so desperately that it felt absolutely necessary. But it seems like, collectively, we have started to forget that there is a distinction between the two.


Maybe it's entitlement

We want it, so we should have it. We work hard and pay taxes and darn it we "deserve" something nice.

Maybe it's luck

There are obvious exceptions, but on the whole, people in this country have so much. Perhaps we've lost the ability to distinguish because we so rarely have to face real need.

Maybe it's advertising

It could be that we're just believing the hype of the ads we're inundated by. I can't count how many commercials tell people that, even if they have bad credit, they "deserve" a car. It's alluring to let go of critical thinking skills and just accept what the marketers tell us: We're worth luxuries, we should treat ourselves to anything we want.

Personally I suspect it's simpler than that:

My generation and its immediate predecessor (Gen X) don't want to be adults.

Today, it's socially acceptable to still play video games and read comics and all the other ways we extend adolescence beyond all previous limits. And the inability to take on blame or responsibility for our decisions -- especially for our spending -- is just a symptom of this reluctance to grow up.

Unfortunately, we're one of the first generations that has had such bald and extensive access to credit. So we don't have to be able to afford the things we want.

Whatever the reason, it's important to know the difference between "want" and "need." If you can't do this, frugality is always going to be hard for you.

So start with an exercise:

Every time you go to buy something, ask yourself if you need it. Try to brainstorm at least two ways you could get around buying it. (This includes borrowing items or just avoiding the actions that make it necessary.)

For example, if you want to get some fast food, ask yourself if you can wait until you get home and heat up some leftovers or microwave a frozen entree.

A $60 video game? Do you know people who would lend you the game when they're done with it? Can you trade in enough old games to get it free? Can you try a free subscription of a games-subscription service?

Still having trouble?

Here's the absolute best way to determine if something is really a need: Visualize your debt amounts. Now ask yourself if the item is worth staying in debt for.

Yes, you have leftovers in the fridge but you've had them for three nights now and fries sound really wonderful; yes, you could wait for the game, but every single guy in the office is bragging about his stats and it's driving you crazy enough to plunk down the cash.

But will it be worth staying in debt for another month? Another year?

It doesn't matter what your proposed purchase actually costs. The smaller purchases are probably the most dangerous, because they seem so trivial in the short-term. But do the math: If you get a $7 meal twice a week, you're spending over $700 a year.

You'll quickly find out that you rarely "need" anything so badly that you'll consciously stay in debt.

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