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Needs Versus Wants
By Susan Hines-Brigger


New Perspective
Look on the Bright Side
For Teens: Add It Up
For Kids: Take the Test

The other day my seven-year-old son, Alex, came home from school with a project for the whole family. In his folder he had two cards, one with the word “want” on it, and the other bearing the word “need.” His project, he told us, was to see if we knew the difference between what things we need to live and what things we think we need to live, but actually just want.

So, as I was fixing dinner, he began to quiz me and his older sister, Maddie. As he pointed to items around the room, such as the kitchen faucet, the food I was preparing and my large soda, we talked about how sometimes we can mistake our wants for needs. For instance, when I categorized my drink as a want—even though most days it seems like a need—he challenged me and said, “But we need to drink.” A discussion then ensued about the difference between drinking water and a soda.


New Perspective

These days, with the economy as uncertain as it is, the distinction between what we need and what we want seems to be pretty important. Our family discovered that the hard way when my husband, Mark’s, job was eliminated late last year and we faced the reality of living on one income. Needs versus wants suddenly became very clear to us. (You can read more about our family’s experience in the sidebar “Putting a Face on the Economic Crisis” in the June issue.)

But what also became clear to us is that cutting back on your wants and just fulfilling your needs can be rewarding. Suddenly, since we could no longer afford to go out as much, we found ourselves spending more time together doing things that were free. We talked more, laughed more and did things we had forgotten we enjoyed, such as swinging at the park or playing all the board games that had been sitting untouched in the playroom closet.

According to a 2006 survey on happiness by the London School of Economics, I shouldn’t have been surprised. That survey found that the nation with the happiest people in the world was Bangladesh, which happens to be one of the world’s poorest countries, with an annual income of roughly $500 per person. In contrast, the United States, where the average annual income is $37,000 per person, ranked 47th in the happiness survey.

Luckily for us, my husband was able to find a new job rather quickly. But we have continued to try to focus on our needs rather than slip back into a lifestyle of fulfilling our wants. In fact, recently we started going through all of our family’s clothes and toys in order to pare down. Even the kids are amazed at how much “stuff” we had and didn’t use. Our three-year-old daughter, Riley, even offered up some of her toys “for some little kid who doesn’t have any.”

Look on the Bright Side

Money matters can be very stressful, especially these days. Here are some ways to help put a more positive outlook on the topic:

Embrace freedom. This month, as we celebrate our country’s freedom, search out ways to incorporate freedom into your family’s life. It could be freedom from debt, possessions, too many commitments, even guilt. Reflect on what is weighing you down and develop a plan to free yourself.

Go free. One thing that surprised me when Mark was out of work was how many things there were to do for free in our community if we just looked. We found museums, classes, programs at local parks and many other fun things to do at no cost. Check your local paper or the Internet to see what types of adventures might await you and your family.

Cut back. When Mark and I reviewed our budget, we discovered a number of places we could cut back. Take a long, hard look at where your money is going and see if there are things you can do without, such as cable television, cell phones or memberships.

If you’re not sure if you can do without something, take a fast from it for a week and then see how you feel.

Reap the rewards. Once Mark got a job, we decided to continue seeking out free things to do and sticking to our bare-bones budget. We then took the extra money and worked together as a family to decide what to do with it, such as making a donation to a charity of our choice or buying extra food for our parish’s food pantry.


It’s never too early to start learning financial responsibility. One way you can get a sense of where your money is going is by writing down everything you buy—from that soda to the new pair of pants or CD you just had to have. At the end of the week, go back and take a look at where your money went.

You might discover that you’re spending a lot of money buying lunch or snacks at school when you could pack your lunch instead. Or before you go out and buy a movie you want, see if you can check it out from the library. Saving money on the little things can help you save up for things like gas, evenings out with friends or even future college.

Just as my son Alex’s project got our family thinking about and discussing the things we need versus want, put your family to the test. Make a list of items you find around the house and ask family members in which category they think the item belongs. Make sure to ask them why they categorized certain things the way they did. Then discuss ways your family can reduce the number of wants on the list.



Do you have ideas or suggestions for topics you'd like to see addressed in this column? If so, send them to me at “Faith-filled Family,” 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498, or e-mail them to

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