I NEED vs. I WANT: How Do You Tell the Difference? On Happy Moderation, or Finding the Just-Right Life

| November 26, 2013 | 6 Comments

It’s coming on winter in the Rockies now, and I’ve shifted from making icy-cold, fizzy concoctions in the Sodastream to preparing round after round of hot beverages during my work day. The day almost always starts with coffee, then around 2:00 I switch to tea or cocoa (fair trade, dontcha know) for the rest of the day.  To pull this off, my stovetop teakettle is in constant use…heating water to a boil is a seven-minute meditation I do hourly; the shrieking whistle is my gong.

So this week I’ve decided I NEED an electric teakettle.  Something that doesn’t shriek. Something that automatically shuts off even if I space it out. Something that doesn’t need me to heat up a stovetop burner and waste all that electricity a dozen times a day.

I asked around on the discussion boards I frequent, and electric teakettles got rave reviews from almost everyone.  So I started shopping, doing my usual circumnavigation between Google, manufacturers’ sites, and Amazon to try to find a winner.  There were so many, I couldn’t believe it.  And they all seemed so….nice.  Shiny. New.

When I noticed myself getting the itchy Buy Now Finger on products like this little beauty, mumbling justifications like “but it gets such great reviews!” and imagining how it would be to polish it, I had to stop myself and, well, go make a cup of coffee.

Did I need it, or did I want it?  Sometimes the boundary between those things can be soooo gray (to me, at least).

Sometimes there is no doubt.   When I go out to Bistro Colorado, my favorite new restaurant in our town, it’s definitely a WANT.  I can somehow survive without their beet & goat cheese salad if I have to.

When I troop down the hill to Kaiser Radiology every year for a mammogram, that’s a NEED.  My family history around cancer is nerve-wracking, and though mammograms aren’t perfect tools, I’ll take all the weapons I can get to see what’s going on inside my body.

Paying to see a movie (whether PPV or Netflix or the local megaplex theater), definitely a WANT. Nobody sick, nobody’s dying if I do something else with that money and time. I just want to live in someone else’s head for a while.

When I take one of the GH dogs to the vet, it’s a NEED.  They’re sick, I have the power to ease their pain, so, done and done.    Sure, I could chain them up in the back yard and throw them a few leftovers now and then like folks used to, and just wait for the day I notice all four feet pointing skyward, but that’s not really my thing.  But now we’re hitting the gray zone.

What about:

  • Certain foods, like coffee, tea, hot bakery bagels, fruit out of season, gorgonzola cheese?  Need or want?
  • Good quality thick flannel sheets, even though they are more expensive than cheapos?
  • Special food for the dog who breaks out in hives and throws up without it?
  • A new car, rather than a used one, or rather than limping an older one to its final repose?
  • Fresh organic veggies and fruits, rather than the frozen conventional ones on sale for a buck a bag?
  • That shearling coat, it’s on sale!

And so on.

There’s a fine line between want and need, and not knowing your line can cost you.   Sometimes the line either disappears entirely, or we find sneaky ways to nudge it one way or another.  Well, I NEED a warm coat, don’t I?   I need to eat, right?  I need to have a new car so it won’t leave me stranded.  

And let me make something very clear, my hedonistic tribe: I have nothing against Wants.  There is a place for them in my life – they fill certain spaces in me, in a way that makes life feel full and rich.  But I’m careful to keep them separate in my mind so I can avoid:

…..over-buying, and being broke at the end of the month, with nothing left for savings

…..falling prey to hedonic adaptation, the fancy term for the Dependence on a Constant Influx of New Shit into My Life in order to feel happy

…..creating a stream of detritus and discarded broken plastic crap behind me as I travel through my life

…..supporting industries, businesses, and individuals that seem hell-bent on wrecking the environment for future humans I might like  (that’s you, Finance, Energy, Ag, and Pharma)

If I at least know the difference, I can find that sweet spot some people call moderation, but which I prefer to think of as my just-right life:  Having the things that make me feel like me, while building the kind of life I want.  Everyone has to have their own way of deciding how this works, but here’s my own process for figuring out what to bring into my life and what to take a pass on. First, three things to think about (and which are fun to think about):

1) What do I actually need to get by? What’s the bare bones for me?

If I were answering that question, I’d say: I need a roof (that doesn’t leak) over my head. I need a yard for my dog(s) to run around and I need space to grow a little food.  I need to feel safe, I need food, water, sleep, some way to get around, and health insurance. I need some quiet time to write, and someplace green to sit from time to time.  That, historically, has been the bare minimum for me. What’s rock bottom for you?

2) What things, if I have them around, make me feel like Me?

A girlfriend of mine has a set of kitchen knives that costs more than everything in my kitchen combined.  She is an amazing chef, and without them, she would feel like she was walking around naked.  Some people need shelves full of great books, the perfect workbench, or a collection of houseplants that surround them with soothing green.   These are things that plug into their core self-image, who and what they are.  To feel like Me, I put a high value on things that keep me in the GH groove: Good tasting, healthy food; things to share with people I like (beer, wine, experiences); things that reduce stress (self-care, reduced work hours, fresh air); things that save me time and money. What are yours?

3) What’s important to me?  What are my values?  What are my goals right now?

What matters to you?  What do you want to see more of in this life, and what do you want to see less of?  Do you value having good health, freedom, financial abundance, excitement, life balance, creativity?  Do you detest stress, clutter, being in debt, an hour-long commute, having no time to relax?  What are your current goals?   As an example, one of my current goals is to get rid of ALL debt, including our mortgage.  My neighbor wants to ditch her entire wardrobe and finally have clothes that fit and feel perfect.  What are you after right now?

. . .

Okay, had enough introspection for one day?  Good.  Let’s circle back to that cool electric kettle (where my finger is still hovering over that “Buy Now” button):  When facing a consumption choice like this, I make sure I’m in the mindset above – being really honest with myself — and then I go through some variant of the following process.  Check the items for which you’d answer Yes, when it comes to the object of your desire.  I’ll use my kettle as an example:

__Yes __No    Do I actually need it to survive?  Of course not.  It’s not like it’s the only water vessel I have to take down to the well or anything.

__Yes __No    Would it help me feel like me?  I think so, if only because every time I use it I’d be hitting on several of my Me points: Frugal chick (see the brilliant Pablo Paster’s math on the efficiency electric kettles), crusader for homemade pleasures like food & drink, lover of stress-free ANYTHING (ask me how many stovetop teakettles I’ve burned up in my lifetime….sooner or later my luck is going to run out)

__Yes __No    Does it tick some important checkbox(es) in my value system?  It hits several of them squarely: Simplicity, calm, economic freedom.  It’s more energy-efficient than what I’m doing now, thus money I will NOT have to pay my energy provider, and coal that doesn’t have to be burned for my benefit.

__Yes __No    Does it move me closer to a goal?  Yes.  Every dollar shaved off my utility bills is a dollar that goes toward being financially independent.  And not worrying about burning the house down?  Priceless.

__Yes __No     Do I love it?  Will it add something beautiful, valuable, or functional to my life for a long time?  (or will it be in the landfill, Goodwill, or basement shelf  in six months?)  Will it make my life easier, more fun, more delicious?  Or are there things about it that will end up being a pain in the neck or other body part?  (long term payments, dry cleaning, etc)


If the majority of my answers are Yes, I’ll spend a little time researching best prices, reviews, and alternatives.  So do I need this exact kettle?  Spiffy as it is, I have to admit that I don’t.  To meet my needs, I can purchase any well-reviewed, attractive model that is not water-touching-plastic (health), and is energy-efficient, easy to clean so I don’t waste water, and has an automatic shutoff to save the landfill one more burned teakettle.  In a matter of a couple of minutes, I was able to pilot The Google to a model that cost $75.00 less, well reviewed, pretty, and solid.  So for the five minutes it took to go through all of this, I pocketed enough to pay the month’s utility bill, or pay for a nice dinner out at Bistro Colorado. Yeeaahhhhh.

When I asked Mr. GH how he decides whether something is a Want or a Need, he smiled and said, “It depends on how much I Want it.”  I suspect that his view of things is far more popular than mine, and yet the world keeps spinning ’round.  With the pressure of so many Wants out there, can the planet keep on?  That’s another post for another day.

Why all this trouble?  The beauty and tragedy of being a hedonist is that I want to try SO many things, so I’m forced to have a system that keeps me balanced in terms of consumption, spending/saving, waste, and my self-respect as an amateur treehugger.  It’s a delicate balance, and a little bit of extra work, but I don’t mind.  It’s worth a little soul-searching to stay in my own version of a just-right life.

What’s YOUR balance between wanting and needing?  Do you give it much thought?  What process do you use to think it through?




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Category: Energy Saving, Leisure, Money Saving, Products (Green and hedonistic), Useful Stuff

Comments (6)

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  1. Kelli says:

    I tend to overthink. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because I never get around to buying x, y or z, and sometimes it’s just a huge time suck. Generally I like to spend a bit more and get something higher quality that will last longer, and usually it works. I enjoyed your thought process and the questions – perhaps I’ll have to come up with those for myself!

    • greenhedonist says:

      Hooray, I’m not alone in the overthinker club! 🙂 I find that having a process helps me a little at both ends of the spectrum – both overthinking and underthinking (the “Oooh! Pretty!” kneejerk purchase) But you raise a great point: I am delighted to observe myself when I’m considering buying something, thinking, “Is this good enough quality to last me the rest of my life?” Easier with things like hand tools and such, but also good for kitchen things like crocks, knives, my cast-iron cookware, etc., all of which should outlive me and benefit whoever inherits it. I’ll always choose a ‘keeper’ over a cheap piece of junk any day.

  2. Stacy says:

    I love this post! I’m not the best at austerity, but sometimes I think to myself “wow, that’s so cool! I’ll let the store keep it here and take care of it for me.”

    • greenhedonist says:

      LOL What a fun, positive way to look at that. I’m def stealing that, Stacy. It will help in those gotta-have-it obsessive moments.

  3. Holly says:

    Interesting and timely post, since my honey is hounding me for a Christmas list. What do I want for Christmas?

    I really don’t want anything, but good health, no pain, mobility and range of motion, which I always took for granted and to payoff my medical bills. He can’t help me with the health part and reducing my medical debt is just not in his realm of a Christmas present.

    I do ‘need’ a smaller purse, since I have to downsize weight and size for my lymphatic/arm health. But I’m sooo picky about purses–it’s all about appropriate function; I just want to pick it out myself.

    So I’m racking my brain for what I could ask for that he would consider “gift-worthy”. Even an Amazon gift-card that allows me to download books to my Kindle on a whim doesn’t qualify. Clothes are always good–he loves to shop and loves when I circle items in a catalog with my sizes and favorite colors and he can go pick something out, but I don’t know what size to buy yet. And again he hates gift cards–they’re too impersonal.

    Jewelry? I’m happy with cosmetic jewelry. A simple pair of hoop earrings < $20 on sale at Macy's, but that's not "lofty" enough for a gift. I asked for those earrings last year and he went overboard–14K gold-expensive from a jewelry store. Nice, but so unnecessary.

    So this year, I'm at a loss for items for a Christmas list. I just want to feel good again, be able to move without pain, have the mobility to do the simple things I used to do without thought–like vacuum, dust the blinds, reach into the back of the dryer to grab that one loose sock, pick up my fat cat and carry my purse!

    • greenhedonist says:

      Christmas is such a strange time that way! I know I like shopping for Wants, not Needs (I mean really….who wants to go shopping for socks and underwear, even if they’re needs?) But it seems like you have some specific Needs that will help you feel good and human again. On the purse, think about sneaking out to do a little purse-shopping on your own to find exactly the right one, then passing that choice on. Same with sizes – the only way to determine sizes when you’ve just changed, er, size, is to do a little retail therapy for yourself, and start pegging that number if you can (and suggest a gift receipt to exchange if needed….I know….a pain….but worth it). I’ll volunteer to come with you!! Is there a clothing store with a wine bar? 🙂 Santa can’t bring you your mobility, but he can bring you some things to look forward to using when it returns…and it WILL return!

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