Friday, July 12, 2013

Wants vs. Needs

I frequently hear people explain about some of life's hard-learned lessons. For instance, it is tricky to tell the difference between items that we want and those that we need.

It should be easy to tell. But we have become such a country of shoppers that the lines appear to have become blurred.

People actually need few things in order to survive, including food, water and shelter. Those are the same necessities provided to prisoners and hostages, although not often in abundance. Shelter may be inadequate and food is likely restricted. Water is of the utmost importance, the one requirement that can be the undoing of hikers and others who venture in the desert unprepared. Without water, most people will quickly perish.

Most visits to large cities remind us of the homeless residents who may have to resort to living on the streets. Even under dire circumstances they can still survive, needing only the bare basics to endure. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I would often see the homeless sleeping over grates on the streets above the Metro tracks. Even on the harshest winter days, they would be lying on the bare metal, covered by large plastic sheets. No doubt that is not how they wanted to live, but they were able to survive.

Stories of men shipwrecked on desert islands indicate that survivors quickly figure out how to construct some type of shelter and to capture rainwater for drinking. They learn to identify which plants are edible. These people would no doubt enjoy a bit more comfort, yet they survive.

As we go about our daily lives, we have lost the ability to distinguish what is necessary from what is merely shiny and superfluous.

We have become a nation addicted to shopping, which now consumes a great deal of attention, time and, unfortunately, money. There are people who would rather shop than do just about anything else. Even with a closet filled with clothes, they feel as though they have nothing to wear. These people will immediately set out to capture another addition for their bulging wardrobe. How many similar items do we really need? How many cardigan sweaters can we wear at the same time? How many handbags does a woman need? Or jeans? Or jackets?

Clothing aside, many of us tend to have a lot of "stuff". When it comes to kitchen items, house wares, linens and general gadgets, we likely have more than we will ever need. Merchants know this. That's why they constantly feature newer versions of some item that we already have, only this one may be more colorful, easier to use or lighter in weight, rendering the old version obsolete. So, of course, we purchase the new item but retain the former model. After all, the older item is perfectly good and we might need a spare.

Truth is, we probably didn't ever need the old one at all.

When people are young, they need very few things in order to survive. I remember being very happy to get my first set of pots and pans. What luxury! Pots of increasingly large sizes with lids that actually fit. I was master of the universe. What else could anyone need?

Once we enter the working world, we are thrilled to have money of our own to spend. We soon realize that by receiving a paycheck, we have a certain amount of power. Buying power. This was heady stuff and we grew to like it.

Problems arise, however, when the paychecks stop. Whether it is from job loss, illness or retirement, eventually those nice, big paychecks will stop. We must suddenly decide how to identify whether an object is one that we really need or merely want.

This determination can be a difficult adjustment.

I often hear people repeating about virtues of "wants versus needs". Financial advisor and speaker Suze Orman repeatedly advises that if we ask ourselves this question when confronted with tempting options, we will be able to keep our financial lives healthy.

Temptation is a strong force but one that is sometimes hard to control. However, for anyone with a reduced or restricted income, mastery over temptation is certainly a lesson well learned.

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