In college, a friend of mine named Sarah rented a small apartment. She was, generally, a very frugal person. She had some savings from a job she’d worked before moving off to college. Her car was paid off, she had no real major debt aside from modest student loans. By some quirk of life, she didn’t own a cellphone — albeit rare in this day and age, it wasn’t terribly surprising given that she’d come from a poor rural background. She worked a student job that provided enough income to meet her basic necessities.
Then Sarah decided that she was sick and tired of being the only 20-something at college without a cellphone, so she decided to get one — and when she did, she decided to go all out. She bought the latest iPhone (back when iPhones were still relatively rare) with unlimited everything she could get — data, texting, protection plan. The monthly bill was enormous, but Sarah thought she would just pick up some extra hours at work and she’d be fine. She signed a two-year contract.
She didn’t get any extra hours, and when the bill rolled around, she dipped into her savings to pay for it. And then she did it another month, and another. Before long, her savings were spent and her rent was due, but she’d already spent her rent money paying her cellphone bill the week before. Sarah was in trouble.
We All Have Basic Needs
Humans need certain things. We need food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, of course, to keep us healthy and safe. We need transportation to be able to navigate the world around us. We need communication to stay in touch with friends and family and business associates who may be long distances away from us.
Sarah had a need that was not being met: communication. Without a cellphone, it was difficult to stay in touch with family and friends or to get important messages from her work or her physician. Getting a cellphone was not a bad decision. With a reasonable service plan and some careful budgeting, Sarah could have easily added a cellphone into her monthly expenses with only a nominal effect on her day-to-day spending.
Needs Can Be Corrupted By Want
What Sarah needed was a cellphone. Any cellphone would have sufficed, and there were reasonable plans available that could strike a healthy balance between affordability and providing enough minutes to meet Sarah’s communication needs. What she wanted was something to make her feel better about the fact that she had never had a cellphone. She had gone without for so long and had been frustrated by trying to live without a phone. She wanted something to impress the friends and coworkers that had teased her for not having one. She wanted to treat herself to something nice. And besides, she needed a phone, right?
If Sarah’s financial situation had been better, if she had bought the iPhone and the expensive plan using extra money leftover in her budget after meeting basic needs like food, shelter, and transportation, she might have been able to indulge those wants without any problems. But when her rent came due and she had no money to pay for it, the reality of Sarah’s mistake came crashing down. She had allowed one of her wants to jeopardize her ability to fulfill a real and vital need: shelter.
What Do We Really Need?
Where do you draw the line between a need and a want? That’s not always an easy question to answer, because everyone’s situation is unique. The three-bedroom house that a family of four needs might be the house that a single person wants. For many, a cellphone data plan is a convenient want, but for a traveling businessman who needs to upload files from his phone, it might be an important need.
- Food. The food we eat needs to nourish our bodies. It needs to be safe from toxins and harmful bacteria. To a lesser extent, it needs to be tasty and enjoyable to eat. In some cases, it needs to be carefully chosen for medical reasons to accommodate special diets. We may want it to come from a restaurant or in a designer bottle, but where it comes from and how it is presented has little to do with its ability to fulfill our need to eat.
- Shelter. The place we live needs to keep us safe and secure from intruders and the elements. It needs to be safe from dangerous pests. It needs enough room for its inhabitants to feel comfortable. It needs to be accessible and attentive to any special mobility requirements the inhabitants have. It may need a workspace so we can conduct business. It may need exterior space to facilitate a garden or room for family pets and children to play. We may want it to have extra rooms that we can turn into spaces like libraries or home gyms and we may want luxurious interiors and decorations, but these are secondary to the functions a living space needs to provide.
- Clothing. We need clothing that covers our bodies and keeps us warm and protects our feet from the ground. We need it to be clean and in good repair. We need it to fit comfortably and be durable. In some cases, we may need certain types of attire to conduct our business — a suit and dress shoes, specialized uniforms, steel-toed boots. Some people may need to avoid certain materials for medical sensitivities. We may want it to come from expensive stores and be labeled with the names of high-profile designers. We may want to continue adding to our wardrobe even after our need for clothing has been adequately met.
- Medical Care. We need the ability to heal our bodies when we are sick. We need it to be safe and affordable and available. Perhaps most importantly, we need it to be effective, well-researched and tested. We may want to believe hype about new seemingly-miraculous superfoods and touted ancient practices, but we do not need them unless they can verifiably cure our ailments.
- Transporation. We need a method of transporting ourselves and our families between places. It needs to be safe and reliable. In some cases, we may need it to be larger and more powerful in order to transport several people or to haul materials or handle difficult terrain. We may want it to be large and impressive and we may want it to come equipped with extra features and we may want it to be brand new, but a mundane vehicle lacking extraneous features or one that was purchased used will still fulfill our need for transportation.
- Communication. We need devices and services to facilitate communicating with friends, family, business contacts and others. These services need to be reliable and responsive. We need them to be reasonably modern and not obsolete. When usage of these services is broken down into limited quantities, we need them to be sufficient for our day-to-day requirements. We may want high-end devices packed with additional features, or advanced services like faster-than-average download speeds, but unless those things are necessary for business or some other purpose, they remain wants.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Indulging Your Wants — When You Can
None of this is to say that we should only acquire items that meet our barest necessities. Everyone wants better things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want a house with extra rooms you can turn into a library or gym or want a car with satellite radio and a GPS system and you can afford it, by all means, go for it! But I think it’s important to not lose sight of the real function of our homes and vehicles and other necessities, so that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking we need more than we really do.
Sarah’s situation, by the way, turned out okay. She was able to borrow some money from some mutual friends of ours to get through the month. Not long after, she cancelled her contract and paid a hefty cancellation fee to do it, although it was a fee that paid for itself once she was able to get the phone bill off her back. Later on, she picked up a much more reasonable plan that fit within her budget.
Photo by espensorvik.