Friday, February 25, 2011

Before you buy it, ask yourself if you really need it

Our 4-year-old son is obsessed with baseball. His face lights up when he catches a snippet of a game on television, or even when he sees a drawing of a ball and bat in one of his activity books. He winds up like a pro and has the kick-the-dirt action of baseball players down pat.

Several months ago, while we were walking through the sporting equipment aisle, he announced, “I need a baseball mitt.” I reminded him that a baseball mitt wasn’t a need, but a want. He cleverly countered with, “If I’m going to play baseball, I do need a mitt.” He was right. He couldn’t play baseball without a mitt, but I was amazed by how quickly and adeptly he was able to spin the situation in his favor.

Of course, it isn’t only children who confuse their wants with their needs; my husband and I are sometimes guilty of doing the same thing. What’s interesting about co-mingling our wants and needs is that we often do so unconsciously. What starts out as a want unwittingly turns into a need.

Take the situation with our home computer, for example. After the hard drive died, we basically had two options: invest in a new hard drive and spend about $200 for the repair, or buy a new computer, which would cost us $400 to $600. At first, we had planned on spending the lesser amount and repairing what we had, but as we looked at new computers and the dizzying array of options available, we slowly began to shift our focus. We started saying things like, “We could really use a computer with more memory.” “A faster computer would be nice.” And, “With a bigger monitor, our kids could watch movies in the kitchen.”

Without really noticing, we had changed our dialogue. When discussing our plans with family and friends, we started saying, “The hard drive in our computer is bad. We need a new computer.” In reality, we wanted a new computer because we got caught up in the idea of all the extras we could enjoy.

I wouldn’t say we’re kicking ourselves over buying a new computer. We had the money set aside to buy it, and we will certainly appreciate increased browsing and download speeds, along with a larger, clearer monitor. Nevertheless, the experience reminds us that it’s difficult to make wise financial decisions when we let our wants become our needs.

Part of that difficulty arises because wants and needs in a consumer-driven society are often relative. Where you live and who you spend time with helps shape what constitutes a “need” in your life. If all your friends tend to communicate with each other via text messages, for example, then you’re more apt to believe you need a cell phone with texting capabilities, too.

A pervading sense of entitlement is another reason we blur the line between wants and needs. When you work hard, you might feel that you “deserve” a vacation, or a massage, a new set of tools or some other special reward. It’s easier to spend money unconsciously with an attitude that says, “I am owed this.”

It’s not always easy to be honest about our wants and needs. Our needs are simple. What isn’t simple is learning to look carefully at our lives and sort through the messages—our own and others—that tell us to do and buy and upgrade. Thoughtfully spending money on what we truly need and want – instead of buying to keep up with trends – can help us keep our budgets focused on what’s most important to us.

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