Can’t Always Get What You Want

“I need that” is a phrase often heard when spending any significant amount of time with a young and verbal child. Because they haven’t learned the difference yet between a need and a want. Want and need is interchangeable because they are so closely related at that age. It truly does seem like they will not survive if you dare substitute the blue cup for the green one or refuse to bring home yet another rubber ball or buzzing, whirring, plastic-buttoned contraption. One of my responsibilities as a parent, which I take very seriously, is to teach gratitude that all our needs are met as are many of our wants, as well as the difference between the two.

Unfortunately, I live in a society that regularly blurs the line. Watch television for more than ten minutes, and the advertisers will be scrambling to convince you that you can’t possibly fulfill your potential as a human being without the latest bussing, whirring, plastic-buttoned contraption that texts or tweets, navigates or video chats. I work in a retail position where I contribute to the cacophony of encouragement to have certain “essentials” on hand to make life more convenient with your newborn, your toddler, your child.

As for my line of work, I was called out by a manager several weeks ago for mentioning (in a half-joking manner) the fact that God gave us everything we need in order to care for our young. Apparently, a sales associate in a baby store shouldn’t say such things in front of customers, who may be easily persuaded to forgo their crib purchase and swathe their infant in animal skins when such things are mentioned offhandedly in their presence.

But let’s talk about need and want for a minute. What do we really need in order to survive? We need nutritious food to fuel our bodies. We need clean air to fill our lungs. We need fresh water to drink. We need shelter from the elements suitable for the climate in which we live. We need clothing to protect our fragile bodies from the dangers of life outside our mother’s cozy wombs. That’s pretty much it. And in a world where we have so many wants from which to choose, it’s kind of hard to believe that most of us don’t even have all our basic needs met when you think about the hoops one may have to jump through in order to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, livestock that hasn’t been hopped up on hormones and antibiotics, and water without chlorine or fluoride or any of the other chemicals that have been added to make it “cleaner” but contaminate our bodies in the process.

Instead of buying local or organic, we buy a round of cranium-sized burritos for the family and a vat of carbonated water with chemicals and chemically altered corn products for flavor. Instead of moving into a home that fits our budget and family size, whether we can afford it or not, we supersize to a McMansion seventeen inches away from the neighbor’s McMansion and twenty-three inches away from the fence backing up to that busy street so there’s not even really any yard in which to run around. We work hard and spend long hours separated from our loved ones so that we can spend money on things that we end up giving away or selling in a yard sale and replacing with newer and shinier things six months later. It’s really starting not to make much sense.

Maybe it’s because I’m at a place in my life where I want to spend my money and my time on something that matters. I want to be with my family as well as grow it. I want to pay my debts from the period of my life when I did a lot of spending on wants and whims. I’m not saying that I don’t value things like home-ownership and education, because I do. I don’t really mind the fact that I have those debts. But in trying to teach my son the difference between a need and a want, I’m becoming more acutely aware of the fact that so many of my peers don’t seem to understand the difference themselves.  And yes, I happen to be very well aware of the fact that when I buy a new tank top it’s not because I need one, but rather because I just want to add a little bit of variety to my wardrobe.

Money to me right now is the thing that is either going to allow me to convince my husband that we’re ready to add to our family’s ranks or stand in the way of my dream of having a noisy house full of little ones. I honestly don’t care how big or small said house is. I don’t really care if we don’t have the fanciest toys or can’t afford all manner of lessons or classes for them. I don’t care if we don’t get to watch Curious George or the two hours of nightly post-primetime, post-bedtime television in high definition. It’s not important. We don’t need it. It would be nice to have a bigger house, less debt and the disposable income or flexibility that may come with less debt, perhaps some more gadgets. But at least where the gadgets are concerned, I find that my time in front of screens of whatever variation only leaves me feeling unproductive or guilty for avoiding my real-life-in-the-flesh companions and responsibilities. As much as I loathe it, I feel much more productive having cleaned the bathroom than having finished reading those articles that someone linked on Facebook. Obviously, I do way more of the latter than the former since I will never invite you to enter my bathroom without allowing myself a certain amount of advanced notice. So, there’s still some work to be done there.

All this to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about need and want lately, especially after posting about the baby stuff. I occasionally find myself skimming through financial books, just in case there’s some big secret I’m missing that can help me finally get ahead (here’s a secret: don’t buy financial books because they all say the same thing in different ways). They all encourage the reduction of want-based spending and thoughtful consideration before buying anything, including things that may actually fall into the much smaller need category. This has to be stated and restated in every financial strategy ever written because it’s hard for us to step back and realize that we have surrounded ourselves with mere wants and whims, which ultimately don’t mean much so we feel the need for more and more. If we happen to wake up and take stock, we just might find that without all those things we thought we had to have, we already have exactly what we need.

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