Why Do We Buy? How Wants Secretly Masquerade as Needs

Why do we buy? That seems like a simple question, but answering it for ourselves can provide insight that may help us reach our savings- and spending-related goals.

On the surface, we buy things for one of two reasons: either we need them, or we want them. The basic needs of life are food, water & shelter. Beyond that, it’s all about the wants. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

In reality, it’s more complicated than that. Rarely do we buy something just because we need or want it.

Needs-based purchases

Needs-based purchases often sound like this for me, “Ugh, I need to go to Home Depot to buy some caulk.” And then I drag myself to the store and return home with the caulk. No way, no how, does caulk ever appear on my list of things I really want.

But let’s step back. Even choosing “caulk” to illustrate a needs-based purchase shows how easy it is to confuse needs with wants. No one needs caulk. Maybe I need it IF I want to caulk around a tub, but that’s not the same thing as truly needing the item.

So for most of us, a purchase based on “need” is really about buying something that will help us reach a goal. That goal might be getting to work on time and conveniently (a car), being able to communicate with our grandma in another state (a phone), or something else.

When you’re considering those types of “needs” based purchases, remember that they’re rarely true needs. Often, they’re a matter of making life convenient. For example, you could write grandma a letter and pop it in the mail instead of calling. She might even appreciate that more.

Wants-based purchases

Some things are obviously wants-based purchases. For example, a typical wants-based purchase would sound like this for me: “Oh I can’t wait to go on our trip to ________!” (where the blank could be filled in with practically any destination in the world.) I daydream about upcoming trips. I research things to do and places to see while on the trips. I save up for the trips.

But, do I need to take a trip? That answer is pretty much always no. I just want to. I love exploring. But I don’t actually need to buy anything in order to explore. I have feet.

Where things get tricky

Most other purchases fall somewhere in the middle though, and that’s where things get tricky.

Take a basic need like eating, for example. We’ll die if we go without eating for long enough, which makes eating a genuine need in anyone’s book. But, do we need to stop at the Dairy Queen and to buy an ice cream cone?

Intellectually, the answer to that question is no. Of course no one needs an ice cream cone. We want one. (In fact, I’d love to have one right about now.)

But with some mental gymnastics, our minds can take the desire for an ice cream cone and turn it into a need. Sure, maybe we don’t need it to survive, but somewhere inside, we’re trying to fill some other unmet need, like the desire to feel good or to be entertained.

Allowing wants to masquerade as needs

We may also allow wants to masquerade as needs because we want to fit in or to be emotionally fulfilled. While buying things can partially meet those needs, at least for a short time, they’re not the real answer.

Or we may buy because we think it’s expected of us, or because we feel pressured. We may buy on impulse. We may buy out of a desire to keep things “equal”. We may buy to impress others. There are many reasons.

We may even buy things in an effort to avoid. It’s a lot easier to go on a trip or buy a new gadget than it is to figure out what would truly be fulfilling in our lives. Yet figuring that out is much more rewarding, and less costly.

So did deeper. Ask why you’re about to make a particular purchase (or why you want to buy something) — and then really give it thought beyond the obvious or beyond the rationalizations.

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10 comments

  • I took a close look at our expenses a couple of months ago and came to the conclusion that we were spending about 40% extra on wants, not needs, but that the wants were important enough to us to allow in the budget. We did drop our unused stupid costs though (like gym memberships we only used for 4 months and paused Netflix).

    • That reminds me, I’ve been paying $10 a month for a gym membership I haven’t used since…May? Maybe I should stop that. Or at least think about stopping it :)

  • I absolutely believe that for many people – most, actually – there are wants that are masquerading as needs. Our true set of “needs” is probably a bit different than how we would each define it.

    Granted, everyone’s life is different, people have different health conditions, etc – so people might have different needs. But still, each of us still probably confuses some wants as being needs.

    • Yeah I think it’s very common to confuse wants with needs — either just in how we talk about them (“I need that”) or in reality.

  • I’ve only bought caulk once and I really did need it. Bathroom remodel. Although Home Depot totally gets you on the “buy more just in case and then return it” because I haven’t returned my extra stuff yet.

  • Nailed it Jackie! We turn wants into needs because we ‘feel’ like we deserve something…it’s an entitled thing lol

    If you budget out a little for that extra ‘impulse’ and stick to that then you don’t have to feel guilty for buying your wants, you do need to know where you are most tempted though and watch out!

  • That’s a good point: there’s no need to feel guilty about buying wants if you’ve planned for it and have the money.

  • Those needs sometimes become a lot bigger then they need to be as well. Of course you need food and shelter but do you really need the expensive resturants and the 3k sq ft home? People make purchases to sometimes fill a void like gym memberships. They say I am going to pay for membership and it will force me to go to the gym, not! The impressing others is really big one. Don’t chase Mr & Mrs Jones, they may be worse off then you think.