What is a want, what is a need – Determining the Difference

Deciding what is a want and what is a need can be the very thing that helps us stay within our budget and manage our finances.

what is a want

I think that if I was to travel from country to country and ask the people living there what is a want and what is a need that I would have very different answers. What one person would see as a want another person would see as a need and vice versa.

I tend to think that here in North America we have many things on our list of needs that is actually a want.

The truth is, our needs tend to be very basic. A need is something we NEED for our survival. Food, shelter, water, clothing, maybe a vehicle to get to our job so we can make money to buy the food, shelter, and clothing. Beyond that, many of what we own or buy are wants, or things we desire.

Now, I realize that is simplifying it. I mean, I would classify something as dishes and cutler as a need to eat my food with. I would classify my bed as something I need to sleep on at night (though, again, ask someone in another country and they might say you don’t need a bed for sleep, you can sleep on the floor.)

But, putting all that aside, I think many of us can agree that our necessary items to live are pretty basic. Of course, we would also probably agree that if only lived with necessities life wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is, and I think that’s fair to admit.


However, if you are struggling financially and you want to get out from under the hold your debt has on you, I think it’s really important to define a need vs a want. Because no matter what our bank account says, we tend to make excuses for spending money we don’t have sometimes.

We say we’ve had a really hard week so we deserve some retail therapy.

We say we’ve been working really hard so we deserve to go on a vacation we can’t really afford.

We say we just need a break from the kitchen so we deserve to eat out.

And the list goes on and on.

We also tend to make excuses on what a need or a want is by saying things like:

Well, sure, I could have bought the appliance/vehicle/home with less bells and whistles to save money, but those extra features I paid for are going to make my life so much easier.

Now, before I go further please understand I am not pointing the finger. I am writing these things from experience. Many times in my life I have used excuses for myself to “allow” me to spend money I didn’t have.


I also think we sometimes end up supporting our friends and family and encouraging them to spend money they don’t have. Years ago when we were really struggling, before we made a decision to save up beforehand for any trips we took, we put a trip on credit.

I remember telling a friend about it, saying something like, “I know we don’t really have the money, but we want to make memories.” And my friend replied, “You shouldn’t feel bad about the trip. You have to live!”

We’ve convinced ourselves that indulging in things we can’t afford are okay, even necessary for our well-being EVEN IF WE DON’T HAVE THE MONEY.

I’ve even had well-meaning people in my life ask me if I was going to buy something and when I said no they replied, “just put it on credit.”

Are buying wants an issue if you have the cash for them? I don’t think so. But if these choices are hurting you financially, well, then it’s time to be realistic with ourselves about what is a want and what is a need and start cutting things from our budget.


So, what is a need? Well, I would classify it as the things I wrote above -food, shelter, water, transportation- along with some additional stuff. I think that anything regarding our health is a need, be it healthy foods, doctor or dentist expenses, or medications that are needed.


However, within those needs are choices we make that lean towards a want. For example, if my budget is extremely tight, but I want some healthy food, I’m going to look for the cheapest options that fit in my budget.

That means that if I can’t afford the strawberries this week, I’m not going to buy them. I’m going to buy the apples that are a cheaper option for me. I’ll wait to buy the strawberries till they are on sale.

It means if I want to be healthier but can’t afford a gym membership then I am walking or jogging outside for exercise.

I said above that clothing is a need. Definitely it is. However, high end, super expensive clothing is not a need. That is a want. When you have a tight budget you need to be shopping at the cheaper stores, or secondhand.

I would also say, unless necessary for your job, things like data coverage on your cell phone is a want. We have never had data on our cell phones and with the availability of WiFi in so many places these days it’s never caused us an issue to live without data on our cell phones.

Cable and satellite, even Netflix is a want. Our family has Netflix and enjoys it, but if we couldn’t pay our bills, Netflix would be going because it just isn’t a necessity.


When we establish what is a need and what is a want and we decide we need to cut out some of our wants to live within our means, well, it’s going to hurt. There is an element of sacrifice because of it. But in the end it will be worth it.

The sacrifices you make to live within your means are way better than the uneasiness you feel every night as you lay in bed thinking about how you are going to dig out of your financial troubles.

For example, my husband and I have been married for almost 16 years and we have always been a one vehicle family. This is not common these days. While I stay home now so it’s a little easier to only need one vehicle when I don’t have to go anywhere during the day, it wasn’t always this way.

We had only one vehicle when both my husband and I worked and I also went to school at the same time. We spent a lot of time waiting around for each other at different locations, or one of us would take public transportation.

Now, this was before kids so it was a lot easier and possible. I realize that if both people in the home work, have kids they need to transport around, and maybe live quite a distance from these locations that two vehicles are necessary.

However, I am using this story as an example that with a bit of sacrifice we can turn some of our perceived needs into wants, and make due without them, even for a time.

The wants we purchase make our lives more enjoyable and we shouldn’t live without any wants. However, if you are struggling financially, the truth is if you cut out many of these wants, even temporarily, it can help you get ahead.


If you have large debt you want to pay down, or a big trip you want to save up for, by cutting out a lot of your wants you will reach your goal quicker. In the end you will find that it is worth it to sacrifice those wants for your long-term goal.

I know I said earlier that one person’s view of what a need and a want IS would vary. However, it isn’t just their view. What one person’s need is may be another person’s wants. Where we live, what we do, our lifestyles all contribute to what a need or want is.

Like I said above, for me, I could live without a second vehicle, but for some people, a second vehicle is a necessity.

The biggest thing is being honest with ourselves on what our needs and wants are. And I mean really realistic.

If every month there is not enough money to pay your bills, there is a good chance you have some wants in your budget that need to go.

Is it easy? No, not really. But things that are worth doing are usually hard.

One of the best ways to be realistic with our needs and wants is learning to be content with what we have, no matter how little. Stuff will not fill the void.

It will not make us happy. Sure, it might fill us for a little while, but that feeling is just temporary. It goes away and then we are looking for another “want” to buy.

To help you prevent buying wants is to really ask yourself when you are looking at purchasing it if it is necessary for your survival. If the answer is no, the next question is can you buy it without it adding financial strain. If you still want it after asking yourself those questions, consider waiting a couple weeks before purchasing it.

Often once we walk away from an item and had time to think about it we discover we didn’t really want it as bad as we thought we did. This will help you save money.

2 thoughts on “What is a want, what is a need – Determining the Difference”

  1. You are wise beyond your years. There’s an old saying that I try to live by. Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

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