When Wants are Actually Needs


Ever ask yourself, why did I just buy that?

We have heard and read this advice before: distinguish wants from needs.  Buy what you need, not what you want and then you’ll save money.  This is a basic tenet of budgeting. Yet, we know that is easier said than done.

We can ask ourselves:

Is this candy bar a need?
Do I need extra throw pillows for the couch?
Is this cute new top for my date Friday night a need or a want?

Probably none of the above are needs, yet we find ourselves at the register with a Snickers bar, we swing by Target on our way home, we are trying on shirts in Zara.  We can’t seem to help ourselves.

Why is this?  After the initial rush of the purchase, we beat ourselves up for not having the willpower to stick to our guns.  We feel like we are giving in because we are “weak” somehow.  Then we get into a cycle where we feel bad about ourselves so we mope on our laptops shopping online for the rest of the night.

There’s more to the story than willpower or lack thereof.  We might feel compelled to make these kinds of purchase because of something deeper. Because we think this purchase fills a void in us.  We are compelled to buy stuff to meet a psychological need.

Before you get too excited, that doesn’t mean all our wants are now needs.  We don’t have free reign to buy everything to our heart’s content.  (Sorry!)  But it does mean we can probably stop sabotaging our budgets and we can stop holding ourselves back from our long-term goals.


First is to assess what psychological need our buying behaviour is meeting.  We have a variety of psychological needs; the need for play, for novelty, for connection & community, for emotionally soothing, social status and entertainment.  Identifying these psychological needs can help you break free from a negative spending cycle.  I know I’ve bought things that I thought would make me happy only to find myself listless the next day and then stalking a new purchase.  This is because while a trip to Sephora was fun and entertaining, it didn’t truly address the underlying need. Which was I was bored. I needed play & novelty.


Once we’ve identified what needs the purchase was trying to fulfill, we can now substitute the purchase with something else.  Once I discovered that I was trying to overcome boredom by buying lipstick after lipstick (and if you have met me in person, you’d find it ironic since I never wear any), I can substitute the lipstick buying behaviour for something else.  Lately, I’ve taken up learning watercolour painting from Instagram process videos.  It entertains me, I play by learning different techniques, I connect and interact with other Instagrammers. I actually have pride when I finish a picture.  More than what I was getting from a lipstick, that’s for sure.


Over time, you may see a trend or pattern with the needs purchases were trying to address.  Armed with this information, you can tweak your budget to target these needs and even address them before they rear their ugly heads.  So confession time; not so long ago, I used to spend $500-600 a year on makeup at Sephora or department stores.  That’s a lot of money!  But since I’ve substituted an entertaining hobby as a substitute to the aimless meandering in stores to pass time, I have naturally spent much less on purchases that didn’t add value to my days.  In fact, year-to-date, I’ve bought zero make up items! Instead, I’ve added a modest category in my budget for art supplies that are much less than what I was spending on makeup.

By assessing and including our psychological needs in conjunction with our physical ones in our budget, we can substitute with behaviours or purchases that have more bang for our buck.  Over the medium term and over time, these simple, yet enhancing substitutions keep us on budget and allows us to develop a better relationship with our purchases.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.