This is a Social Studies topic that we teach in first grade. When you are six, you neeeed everything. “I neeeed a dog.” “I neeeed another cookie.” “I neeeed the new video game.” So the first thing we do in class is brainstorm things we want and need on one big list; and then we sort them into two separate lists. The “need” side, we tell the children, has the items that you have to have in order to live: food, water, shelter, community and people to help you, clothing to keep you warm. They get it pretty quickly, until someone says, “but I neeeed my teddy bear, or I can’t sleep.” Sigh.
Adults should have an easier time differentiating these two; but often they don’t get it any better than a first grader. It’s funny how adults justify this. I had a terrible day- I need a drink. I need a new car (blouse, dog, etc)- this one is so old. I’m exhausted- I need a beach day. Sometimes this is just an expression, I know, and people really do understand the difference. Maybe. Because in all honesty, most of us have way way way more than we actually need.
I am no exception now, but there was a time in our early marriage when we had to choose between paying rent on our love shack ($150 per month) or buying food. We lived on Ramen noodles and Kraft macaroni and cheese, and the occasional government handout of peanut butter. We had a motorcycle for transportation, which usually meant one of us was walking due to our different schedules. I flipped hamburgers at Louie’s Lower Level in the University of Arizona’s Student Union between classes, my husband did the graveyard shift as a U of A janitor, taking college courses during the day. When we could afford to cut up some hot dogs into the mac-n-cheese, we called it a party and invited all of our friends. They were also starving college students, some of whom sold their plasma so they could eat. So you can believe me when I say I am familiar personally with the wants vs. needs thing.
We worked our tail feathers off to get where we are today. We are still working whatever feathers are left. But now we really have a lot to show for it, and I don’t just mean materialistically. We eat well, we travel, we have been able to help our kids as they move into adulthood, we support several wonderful local charities. Money can’t buy happiness, but when you are generally a happy person, money sure is the icing on the cake. Could we go back to living a mean life? If we had to, we know how. Would we want to? A big hell no. Still, it’s more than an interesting game of semantics- this wants vs. needs.
Then there are people who are so humble that they think we should only have just what we need, and that having too many things from the “wants” list makes us pretentious, even if the money is there (people who live beyond their means are a different story). My jury is out on this; I consider myself a person who doesn’t need anything material at all in order to feel complete. I appreciate and am thankful for everything I have, consciously and on a daily basis; and we are always looking for ways to share. Isn’t that humble? Here is a definition of ”humble”- modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful. In my recent life, I have met quite a few people, who by any standards would be considered über-wealthy, that are more down to earth than the average Joe. They are truly examples of humble people- they are kind, philanthropic and “real”, as in easy to talk with. I think I stand by the idea that the amount of money you have does not necessarily change your basic personality (unless you let it- see the television show “Lottery Changed My Life” for examples of how wealth can affect people).
So back to wants and needs- I guess the message is this: be thoughtful about what you spend your money on. If it is a luxury, be conscious that it is and don’t try to fool yourself into thinking you need it. Awareness of how fortunate I am keeps me working hard and grounded.