System of Want vice Need


The perennial question - do I need a 1:8 scale Bugatti Chrion Lego Technic, or do I simply want the little bastard.

Doesth thou bite thy thumb? Fine. The Lego set is reductio ad absurdum. But it highlights the fact that I have no reliable internal categorization of items that are needs, against the things that are wants. From the outside, my angst over this is absurd. I naturally live far below my means, without struggle. Still, I have no system and my purchasing of wants is chaotic and not happy.

I’ve spent time trying to find a ‘wants evaluation system’ that works for me. I’ve:

  • put hard limits on allowance money;
  • divided the amount of passion I feel for the item by the cost of the item;
  • implemented a 30 day waiting period.

Every approach has failed. I’m well trained at delaying gratification, and I’m also aware of how minimal a human person’s needs actually are. But even guilt and delay only hold so long before the retaining wall collapses. Instead of the steady trickle of $15 books, I end up with an impulsively purchased $200 Xbox system forced down my own throat before I can change my own mind. Same ultimate cost, more guilt, less gratification. It’s an unhappy way to make decisions.

I can do better with my financial life. I’m interested in knowing what system for determining when to actually purchase a want, and specifically why your system works for you.


It certainly sounds like a need to me.


What works for me is just having a line item in the budget for “cool stuff.” Do I want thing? Yes. Is there money left for it? Yes? Cool I’m buying it

You’ve already said this doesn’t work for you, I think. You also sound like you’re being really hard on yourself. I think the thing that REALLY works for me is accepting that I’m a fundamentally irrational creature and I am never gonna 100% this, and having a fund set aside for “stupid impulse purchases” means I don’t have to feel guilty or worry that I’m blowing up my whole future or whatever.


If I buy something I want and feel guilty, I make my husband buy something he wants. This is a surprisingly big help with guilt.


If I feel guilty (and I didn’t use it) I return it. Sometimes I do impulse purchase, but returning it does wonders for clearing up the guilt.


I tend to put my lavish wants in perspective to my greater values –

so, Bugatti vs charity spending – how much is my pleasure at building a really freaking sweet Lego model worth compared to how much I want to spend on the greater good?

I try to allow percentages - like charity spending is worth xxx of a pie, and Fun Shit Just Cuz yyy of a pie.

My budget is currently tight enough, however, that it’s still easy to separate real wants from “frivolous” wants.


I don’t know that I have a real system. I try to make purchases that I feel will leave me happy, without regrets; there’s a very particular dis-ease I feel before making a dumb purchase that I know means bad news. I try to avoid that feeling! I recognize that is highly non-actionable, but there it is.


I’ve had similar struggles in the past, at least an unhealthy preoccupation with wanting to spend money and feeling guilty about anything I buy that’s not strictly necessary in a way that means ultimately I don’t even really enjoy the things I do buy. Honestly, what works best for me when my budget has room for it, is just giving myself permission to spend more money.

When I truly do not have the money, I can do austerity mode pretty well. For years I said no to many things I wanted, and knew that I had important reasons to say no. Once I started earning more money, I still mostly said no, but it was harder to stick to it, because I knew that I could, really, say yes if I wanted to. So I would agonize over every “fun” purchase, taking forever to make a decision and then feeling guilty that maybe the thing I chose was not the best possible use of that money. But saving $50 or $75 more per month out of a budget that already aggressively prioritized debt repayment and savings was not actually worth that kind of suffering. So I made myself a more detailed budget than my previous general categories of “basic living expenses,” “savings” and “all other discretionary spending.” I thought through what kinds of fun things I want most often, are in line with my larger values, and least likely to cause me some other kind of regret down the line, and then…gave myself permission and budget lines to buy them. Like, I’m happy to spend money on ebooks and digital downloads of various kinds, because they don’t clutter up my small living space and I value supporting writers, musicians, and other kinds of creators. I could spend absurd amounts of money on candy and junk food from the grocery store, instead I get treats a couple times a month from local businesses I like to support, plus it’s motivation to go out and walk around my neighborhood to counteract my hermit tendencies, etc.

Some of what I used to worry about, and I wonder if you do too, is that if I started letting myself buy whatever I wanted, then I would just want more forever. And actually what I found was that when I felt free to just pick up some things I like now and then, that buying them made me happy without guilt and anxiety, and I do in fact feel like I have enough. Not forever, but long enough that my spending is stable, and I’m not making impulse purchases I regret. The closest I come to bottomless desire is for clothing, especially around this time of year as I live in the PNW which doesn’t have dramatic seasonal changes from fall to winter to spring, it’s been cold and gray for so long that I am well sick of it, and the first manifestation of that is usually a desire for new clothes. But ultimately what I want isn’t clothing, it’s color and light and novelty, which is why buying clothes doesn’t sate the desire (sometimes also a desire to be a different kind of person as symbolized by the type of clothing this other person would wear, but that’s a whole other thing). I can get those other ways, like going out to museums, finding new music to listen to, or booking vacations to sunny places. Granted, that last is more expensive than buying new clothes, but it’s also more effective at cheering me up and doesn’t leave me with a box full of regret to haul to Goodwill later.


When I am very very good (rare, but happens) I look towards the end of an item’s useful life. Let’s imagine a toque with a faux fur pom pom, gaily oversized. Such a toque will last about five years. In five years will this dearly lusted for toque still make me happy that I spent xx dollars? Will it still fit my aesthetic? Beloved pink toque is pre-financial wisdom years old, and is now best suited for pyjama use. But a neutral coloured, warm hat? For every day October to April? Yes. My precious will still make me happy if I spend $40. But $80 makes me sick. And the almost right hats, I’ll regret deeply in about 3 weeks. So shall I trot off to the store tomorrow? Yes, I shall.

Now a well built Lego? That’s 40+ years. Let’s picture a dashing 75 year old with a beautiful 60 year old wife. In a teensy quaint house with one ridiculous car each, a pair of adorable pups. A few giant toys stored offsite, and a perfectly polished display case featuring all previous collections AND the Bugatti. Do we purr and snirt at this image? Do we sigh at having worked an extra half day? Do we regret having an entire display wall to dust? Do we feel guilty that the Bugatti is made of plastic or could feed a family for two months? Do we think that we SHOULD feel those things, but actually want the pretty, can afford the pretty?

If I were on the top of my savings cat tree, I’d buy the pretty (it wouldn’t be LEGO or a car)

Since I’m in the middle, I buy the hat.

When I was on the bottom I bought the delicious books and they were manna for my soul. Now I can still have the books, because I have the strength and patience to put them on a wishlist or get them from the library.


Listen to Elle. She is smarter than the rest of us.


Isn’t it annoying when you take the time to help an internet stranger, and they reply with all the reasons your system won’t work for them? Onward!

@katscratch, you offered a new perspective. There are actually 3 categories. Needs, real wants, and frivolous wants. I’m awkwardly wallowing in the space between real wants, and frivolous wants. I need a system for categorizing what is actually frivolous.

@ielerol, my ultimate goal is to give myself the permission you talked about. I don’t have the slippery slope fear you described, but I do have desires that are clear indicators something is lacking in my life. I often don’t buy that thing, though.

The more I ponder the situation, the more I realize it’s not an issue of money, or even control of money. It’s about mental discipline. If my life has been just fine for 4 decades without [item], then [item] is clearly a want and I will control myself accordingly. I’ve had a lot of self-discipline shoveled into my prefrontal cortex when it was still solidifying, and that self-discipline likes bright lines. But the amygdala still manages to spurt around those rigid lines with deft flanking manoeuvre. It creates significant conflict.


I have slept and breakfasted and brushed the faux fur on my hood. I am resisting the pretty unneeded hat another day.


This is a wonderful post, Elle.

I have a “fun money” category that does very well at limiting my frivolous/hobby purchases. However, I struggle with wants and needs within other categories. Food is a great example. I need food, obviously, and I need healthy food. But do I need chocolate? I probably don’t need it. I don’t really feel guilty about buying it anyway, but maybe I should. What about buying delicious, fancy bread instead of making it myself? Shouldn’t I just go without bread if I can’t find time to bake? Have rice and beans instead? It seems like I should. But I don’t.


I feel that way about wine. I don’t need it and my body would certainly like not having it ever. But my emotional health in cold cold winter does benefit from a little evening buzz now and then.


I’m new here, and I realize that ground rules have not been established. Anyone found attempting to subvert the affections of my wife will be sore tested upon the rack of my wrath.

Additionally, 15 years? Hurtful.


Ah ha, your identity has just become clear. Not sure how I could have missed it before. :grin:


I assumed that dashing and beautiful were clearly madly in love. Also that fake numbers were used to protect internet privacy and not for any other reason. You’ll also notice that I added 40 years to your age and got 75.

But the red dot tells me that you are giving up privacy?


I was going to tell you my tactic, which is to hem and haw and stress over every single purchase, but umm…it mostly results in me being stressed out and anxious. The main thing I
have done and find benefit from is tracking when I wanted something, and what value or emotion it represented, the price, and the price per days I’ve wanted it (as an excel fuction). Here’s a sample google sheet that I use as a Things I want tracker. It’s not good for immediate consumables (booze, cigarettes) but it is good for things like “pretty pens” or “glitter hot pants”.

On a personal level, I did practice some acceptance as recommended by some folks here. I gave up trying to limit my clothing purchases to $0, even though I’ve successfully had full $0 clothing years several times. But I like clothing. It’s probably my main vice. I just budget for it now, and I try to make it close to net-zero between selling clothing and buying it. That has allowed me to balance things a bit more without beating myself up for liking the things I like.


I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot. @anomalily, I actually tried a system very similar to yours a few years ago, but it failed. Probably because I couldn’t (still can’t) quantify feelings.

It’s only been a week since my first post, so this isn’t finalized. Hell, it isn’t even organized. Still, it feels more solid than pre-built systems I’ve tried to ram into my life whole sale.


  1. Needs
  2. Heavy Wants (I can live without them, but there’s a significant hit to quality of life)
  3. Wants
  4. Frivolous Wants (passing fancies and momentary pangs)

Heavy isn’t a great word, but I can’t come up with any synonyms that don’t delegitimize the lower categories. Legitimate, valid, authorized, permissible. They all imply the want’s are illegitimate, invalid, unauthorized, impermissible, etc.


  1. Do I actually want his item, or am I imposing it on myself?
  2. Will I have to pull from savings to purchase?
  3. Will I have to reduce my charity contributions?
  4. Am I reacting to some other emotion?
  5. Is the item exactly right, only partially right, or hardly right at all?
  6. Am I buying convenience?
  7. Am I buying simplicity?
  8. Do I already own something that will complete a task ‘good enough?’ Does the multitask version fill me with rage or dissatisfaction?
  9. Will patience get me the item for free?
  10. How long until it’s clutter and irritation?

Unlike previous systems, I doubt a yes answer will automatically mean no purchase. You’d be surprised how many times the answer to 1 is no, and then I still end up with the goddamn thing anyway. Aspirational purchasing. Self imposed treats. It’s maddening.


  • Savings
  • Generosity
  • Personal esteem - flattering wardrobe, flattering haircut, gym subscription
  • Getting to know a city - restaurants, museums, coffee shops
  • Fun - audiobooks, books, movies, comics, entertainments
  • Travel - relationship
  • Travel - tourism
  • Eating out - work travel, convenience, enjoyment, socialization
  • Desperate boredom

I trolled my 2018 spending tracker, and pulled out the things I do a lot. This is probably some prototype exploration of values.


All wants are frivolous by definition because they are wants.

No wants are frivolous because, to quote John Hodgman, Certified Fake Internet Judge, you like what you like.

I suspect the road to happiness does not lie in coming up with more subcategories of wants.

My method is sort of like @Elle, except it’s adapted for people who lack her imagination. Track the things you DO buy or spend $$$ on, and how you feel about them at regular intervals. Observe situations that lead to sustained happiness over purchase vs. meh. Identify patterns. Compare future want decisions to past want decisions based on known data. If an item or category keeps recurring - you wanted it, you bought it, it failed to meet happiness expectations, examine why. What does the item represent to you that you are revisiting the same decision over and over?

Take my methods with a grain of salt. In the past, I have worn shoes that made my feet bleed instead of just getting new shoes. But I was so stressed about buying a sous vide immersion circulator that I failed to use it for over a year after I got it.