Updated on 04.01.11

Convincing Yourself That a Want Is Really a Need – and How to Stop It

Trent Hamm

For my work purposes, I have a desktop computer and a laptop computer. The desktop computer is the central machine, with a big external hard drive attached to it to back up my files. My laptop is the machine I use when I’m not able to be in my office, and it just syncs all of the files I need with my desktop computer.

Both of these computers are PCs. I purchased them because the cost was substantially lower.

However, most of the software I use regularly functions much better on Macs, from image and video editing to the writing and programming environments. On top of that, my desktop machine has some ongoing hardware issues that cause the machine to crash once a day or so. I’ve thrown my hardware expertise at it and my conclusion is that the motherboard is at fault.

At this stage, it would be easy for me to convince myself that I needed to just migrate completely to a Mac-oriented setup. I have money set aside to pay for everything I would need for this migration, including hardware and software. I can make an incredibly powerful case for the switch when I lay everything out.

The truth is, though, that I don’t need it.

Right now, I’m constructing this post on my laptop without any problems. In a bit, I’ll do some basic photo editing on this very laptop, again without any real problems. I can access websites, update The Simple Dollar, and do all of my writing right here.

All of the key uses for a Mac setup revolve around things I might do, not things I need to do. That alone puts this move securely into the “want” camp instead of the “need” camp.

My cell phone? It addresses things I might do – make calls and texts on the go – instead of things I need to do. It’s a want, not a need.

Our television? It addresses things I might do – watching television programs or playing video games – instead of things I need to do. It’s a want, not a need.

In all of the cases I’ve mentioned above, I’m in a situation where I’ve convinced myself that something is a need when it’s really a want. That in itself isn’t a problem when I’m willing to recognize that these wants are keeping me from other financial goals.

The problem really is that so often, people in a financially tight position continue to believe that many of their wants are actually needs. They’ll drown in debt, but you’d better not even suggest that they lose their grip on their cell phone. They’ll go bankrupt, but they need that cable service. They can’t pay their credit cards, but they’re socially obligated to eat out three times a week.

Wants, not needs.

If you’re wanting to achieve a financial goal in your life, you have to be honest with yourself about what things in your life are needs and what things are merely wants. Are you able to eat? Do you have shelter? Do you have clothing to keep yourself warm? Are you able to get to work and accomplish your tasks there? At that point, your needs are met. Anything beyond them are wants.

“But life is boring without anything that I want!” If you’re willing to step back and look at what you’re actually desiring, you can find a lot of what you want for free or for extremely minimal cost. Hit the library and stock up on free DVDs, CDs, and books. Have potluck dinners with friends and family. Go out into your community and see what free things are actually going on (concerts, plays, talks, etc.) and what free things there are to explore (parks, trails, wandering walks).

Of course, I’m not saying you should never choose your wants. Instead, I’m merely suggesting that mindfulness about the abundance of things in your life that are there just to fulfill your wants can give you a powerful new perspective on how you choose to spend your money.

Just ask yourself if this thing you’re wanting to spend money on fulfills something you might do or something you genuinely need to do to survive. When you take that idea to heart, it becomes clear how deeply abundant our modern lives really are.

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  1. Adam P says:

    While I agree with your sentiment that people mired in debt and with important goals need to clarify want versus needs and weigh wants against their goals (get out of debt, house down payment), you open up this argument with a situation that just makes you sound like a miser.

    “On top of that, my desktop machine has some ongoing hardware issues that cause the machine to crash once a day or so. I’ve thrown my hardware expertise at it and my conclusion is that the motherboard is at fault.”

    You work on the internet/computers writing this blog or other things for a living, and your computer crashes once a day. You have saved the money up.

    This is responsible spending without going into debt on something that would greatly improve your satisfaction at work, and make you happy. By showing this in the light of a “want” that is akin to video games or comic books or generic excess stuff is kind of poor, in my opinion.

    I’m not sure if I prefer your trying to justify the purchase of your brand new Prius or this post where you’re trying to convince us that a new Mac to replace your fried motherboard PC is a want instead of a need.

    The 2 posts are so opposing in nature but both grate somehow.

  2. Riki says:

    There is no need for a separate desktop and laptop. But a keyboard, and connect the laptop to your existing monitor when you want to work at your desk with a big, comfortable screen. Unhook the laptop and take it with you when you need portability. A new Macbook Pro will run you about $1200 + tax and with an upgrade or two down the line you can easily get 5 years out of it. To be honest, a regular Macbook is only $999 and that is PLENTY of computing power.

    That’s pretty good value for dollar, in my mind. Yes, you pay a premium for Apple products but the quality is there. I will never, ever buy a PC again.

  3. Rebecca says:

    i agree with Adam. Frugality is wise money management, staying out of debt, saving for retirement, emergencies and for things in life that truly benefit you. You have your savings in place, your finances under control and have saved in advance for a system upgrade. Why not do it? This is a responsible, pre planned purchase that you will use for many years. Untie the purse strings once in a while Trent, more people may agree with how you manage your money. Because what this post did is show us you trying to talk yourself out of a conscious purchase to replace a computer that has served its time and more. Its ok to spend money once in a while in the manner I mentioned above. Its part of frugality.

  4. Amyk says:

    This is an excellent example of choosing price over value and later regretting it.

  5. TLS says:

    I’ve had more than one laptop die on me, unfortunately. If you are dependent on a computer to make your living, you definitely want to have a backup.

  6. lucy says:

    It sounds like Trent is using the laptop instead of the desktop to get his work done and is not planning to replace them until the laptop needs to be replaced. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  7. Riki says:

    Having a backup — absolutely! One of Trent’s current machines could be a backup. Being cautious isn’t reason to use TWO computers on a daily basis.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    I would think he’d want to at least buy a new laptop for the business – and write it off as a business expense. then either cope with the older PC for personal use or get a refurbished one. For backup- buy an external hard drive to, instead of a whole computer.

  9. valleycat1 says:

    oops – he already has the external hard drive. I’m expecting him to announce purchase of a new laptop (or receipt as a gift) within the next month or 2!

  10. Kate says:

    The snarkiness starts up again (which kind of grates on my nerves). :o)

  11. Nancy says:

    I’ve never heard someone say, “I love my Dell!” I’ve heard hundreds say, “I love my Mac!”

  12. TLS says:

    Good point.

  13. jim says:

    Trent does not need an Apple which is much more expensive then the PCs he’s been using. I think that an expensive Mac is the ‘want’ part of the computer example here. He may ‘need’ a computer but he does not ‘need’ to spend 2x as much to get a Mac rather than a Dell.

    He needs a computer. He wants a Mac.

  14. Leah says:

    Trent, I’m just going to say one thing: WTF?

    Okay, maybe I’ll say a little more. But the above really needs to be said.

    Seriously? I agree with others. You write for a living, and you’re having computer issues. Buy the laptop you WANT that will give you satisfaction day in and day out. You are NOT in debt. You don’t have to live on the littlest amount of money possible. If you need a new computer, buy the one that will make your life easier. In the words of Gretchen Rubin, spend out — we make money for a reason, and that’s to make our life easier. Make your life a little easier with the money you have.

    And, as many have said, are you prioritizing quality or cost?

    As a side note, I’ve been reading this site less and less in the past few weeks. And posts like this one are why.

  15. Couldn’t this be considered a business expense?

  16. marta says:

    I am sorry, this is stupid. Just be a professional and get a new machine and write it off as a business expense. You’ve been mentioning your slooow computer in the same way you would mention the rust on your truck’s bumper.

    Hint: it doesn’t make you look good. It makes you look cheap.

  17. DeeBee says:


    I very much admire your site and your elimination of personal debt. You make a very important point about resisting impulse purchases that you may have formerly justified as “needs” when they were actually wants. This is a very important concept for everyone to learn, and the younger the better.

    However, if I were in your shoes, as a professional writer, I would develop a plan to purchase a new computer this year. I work in IT/Library Science and I need to have at least 2 functional computers with peripherals in order to do my work effectively and on-time. I budgeted specifically to buy a light laptop that I can commute with and take to conferences, and that purchase has served me well. If you believe that a Macintosh would serve you better in your work, than a Macintosh is what you should buy, because it is a sensible business investment.

    If you are having to reboot constantly, create extra backups, or do excess troubleshooting because of your old pc, you are spending time that could be dedicated to more writing or more family time. You know how valuable your time is because you have blogged about it.

    Whatever your choice, good luck with your computers!


  18. ysabet says:

    @Nancy I love my Dell. My bloody iBook was a right royal pain to self-service – choice of $500 plus parts to replace the harddrive, or just the cost of the harddrive. Sounds easy, right? But 3.5hrs later, 173 screws, and 20 different screw heads … it’s a good thing I’m handy with a screwdriver. My Dell, on the other hand, takes around 2 minutes to change the harddrive. The warranty is far superior – and less than a third the cost of Applecare. With next day onsite service. Hmm.

    Is there any reason you don’t just get a new motherboard, perhaps secondhand off ebay? That would surely be cheaper than replacing the entire thing, and would save you a lot of angst and downtime. Buying a whole new PC – or equivalent Mac – would be a bit wasteful, I think. Frankensteining a PC is easy enough.

  19. Alice says:

    After finding myself literally wasting hours each week because my dell laptop was near death, I bought a mac laptop. I had the savings to pay for this, I use the computer several hours a day. If I didn’t have the money saved, I could have made due with the failing laptop.

    But now I’m planning to use the formerly “wasted” time doing odd jobs to make up for the cost of the new machine. Whether the new computer was a “want” or a “need” will be rendered irrelevant by the fact that it will pay for itself in a few months.

    I’m not seeing any virtue in running a business with failing equipment when the resources are there to upgrade the equipment to at least work properly. If someone I knew was in a situation like this but was having qualms about buying better equipment, I would advise cutting all discretionary spending until enough money was available to get working equipment.

    When one’s living depends upon being able to electronically write and post on the internet, not ensuring equipment works properly is not a good business decision. Nor does announcing this state of affairs as some sort of a virtue on one’s professional blog seem like a good business decision.

  20. Mel says:

    My reading of this was not “My computer is dying but I’ll just ignore that because it’s only a want”, but instead “My computer is dying, I’d love to replace it with a Mac but that’s more than I’m willing to pay so I’ll do something different”. Perhaps the ‘something different’ should’ve been mentioned explicitly – whether it’s replacing the motherboard, buying a PC or just doing without a desktop.

    I love my Mac. I’m a freelance programmer, so my laptop is my livelihood. When I started doing this I didn’t have the money upfront for a laptop, so I long-term borrowed a spare Windows/Linux one from a friend. A while later, another friend was selling her macbook so I bought that and returned the other. It’s great! For me though it was the sensible move – it was no more expensive than a new PC laptop, I can have 3 operating systems on it (OSX, Windows, Linux) which is great for testing, and best of all: because our main, shared desktop is Mac, networking is utterly painless. (Yes – connecting with Windows does work, and often easily but it’s sometimes a PITA, usually when there’s a time pressure!)

  21. Jules says:

    If you were still paying off debt, maybe this would make sense, but as it is, you’re now in a position where making a planned purchase of this kind is a perfectly logical and reasonable expense, especially if you’re writing for a living.

  22. Sonja says:

    Ok, so the point is not to confuse needs and wants. Good point. I have a friend living paycheck to paycheck and who has payments to make on everything…who “needs” a front-loading washer and matching dryer because “they get the laundry cleaner” and also “needs” a Dyson vaccuum cleaner because they are “better” than what she has now.
    When she told me this I thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. Some people just can’t see the big picture.

  23. Evangeline says:

    We own a Mac and a PC. They both function beautifully. However, my favorite would be the Mac for one reason alone: it is practically hack-proof.

  24. Nancy says:

    To clarify my Mac love. I had one of the original iMacs (Blue) and after some hard drive difficulties, (they replaced the entire machine) the Mac proved to be a great computer that lasted for 12 years until we went from dial up to wireless. I now have a paid for MacBook that is 4 years old.

  25. kjc says:

    Get whatever you want, claim it as a business expense, and stop over analyzing / rationalizing everything. Egad.

  26. Cam says:

    Great post! I read it as a reminder of the abundance in our lives.

    I do still hope you get the upgrade you “want”, Trent. You can push the example to an extreme and say that you don’t “need” a home computer when a library one would give you access to internet just as well.

    You have the savings, it’s essential to your job, it is conscious spending and will make your life easier which are good enough reasons to part with your money.

  27. Gretchen says:

    I’d forgotten all about that stupid rusty bumper.

  28. Kathryn says:

    I think #1 Adam said this well.

    I love your site and all that you have taught me thru it, but i think this post is perhaps not as well written or not thought thru thoroughly. You seem to have too much thrown into it to make it clear.

    I can see that replacing a computer that is not working well with a Mac vs. a PC is an issue of want/need. But NOT replacing a computer that is not working well (when it is a major source of income for you) is not want/need.

    My husband needs his complicated Droid phone. He has to be available to his work 24/7 and able to do certain things even when we are away (like at church). To not have that available will cost his company $$$. Yes, he wanted that phone and it is a fun new toy for him, but he needed it as well. The old phone was a constant source of frustration for him as it did not do what he needed it to do.

    Fortunately for us, i neither want or need a similar phone. We DO need cell phones, however, as we have not had a land line for many years. The phones were costing us too much at one point and my husband set up free stuff via computer that his work contacts can use as the first (and major) line to reach him so that we could reduce the cell phone plan, but doing without them is not possible for us.

    Strictly speaking, any phone (cell or landline) is a want (not food/clothes/shelter), but it doesn’t really work that way in our current culture.

    The picture you painted here is very black and white: Needs = food, clothing, shelter. Wants = everything else. And, for a family with a strain on their income (recent job loss, new family member, etc.), getting to this black and white place is necessary to survive. For the rest of us, it is a good thing to keep in mind. However, living in a “survivalist” mode is stressful in & of itself.

    I completely agree with keeping in mind needs vs. wants. But this post seems to mix that issue and this isn’t your best or clearest post.

  29. kristine says:

    Going on 16 years now of macs. I buy top of the line in ever way (I edit video, sound, and do large, large graphics work), spent about 1800 on my last machine, and it lasted 11 years. But there was no longer a browser it could handle that was compatible with 90% of web sites, including any e-mail server, so I could no longer send and recieve files. Machine still works great- my son uses it for garage band and recording. We have both PC and Mc laptops on pour house (pro purposes), and my hubby sends clouds of colorful language form the basement about 2X a week, after the umpteenth time on the phone with support. I had a dell combust on me once.

  30. kristine says:

    I put my money in the quality and customer service- if you have a prob with a mac (I had a prob once, but it was that I accidentally swapped a powercord with a friend- wrong wattage). you make an appointment, and you are in and out in 30 minutes, and they will not stop until they solve your problem, on the spot. I put my money where it counts.

    That said, I use a 15 dollar cell phone with my T-Mobile plan (I find on-the-go web access to be a substitute for poor planning), and have no GPS (a map is 5 bucks). And people seem oblivious to the cost of cell phones-the disappearance of working pay phones on the street, replaced with cancer clusters, and a whole generation that will stagnate at the parallel play phase. But I digress.

  31. Kate says:

    Right…the point of this article is how to determine “wants” and “needs”. I wonder if people here forget that Trent is trying to show those people who are overspending how to stop, evaluate, and then act. He may very well decide to buy the new computer and that will be okay–he has the money. Just as he went ahead and decided to buy the Prius–he had the money. But, he knows in his heart that he doesn’t really “need” the new computer to effectively run his business–he can easily do that with the equipment that he already has. And if both his computers were to die today, in this day and time he could easily replace them within a day or two. His livelihood isn’t going to go down the drain in that timespan.

  32. ejw says:

    I also find this computer upgrading to be a weird thing to put in the wants vs needs argument when we’re talking about livelihood expenses. (Totally agree on the cable, eating out, vacations, cars etc.) When I expanded my business as a free lance voice talent I had to buy a mic/software etc to set up my own studio…at the time a want, since I had no clients or prospects in sight that would book me directly, but a definite need if I wanted to be able to do that business. (I did have considerable experience and knowledge of the industry, however) I hate paying for it, but need a cell phone with email capability or else I’m tied to my home computer, or dependent on laptop and charity wifi 24/7 in case a job comes in or a client contacts me. Trent has talked about dabbling in video, or actually works in it frequently (I don’t remember)if this is something that is tied or is going to be contributing to his business, he needs to have that in place working well…the time lost on crashes or frustration with poorly functioning equipment can easily cause someone to avoid even attempting new projects particularly if these projects are not bringing in income…yet. Not that I’m advocating for all wanna-be film makers or whatever to spring for great new equipment ‘just in case’, but you also have to be able to pursue things with the correct equipment and that can obviously be a want/luxury up front and the financial or satisfaction rewards coming later.

  33. Dave says:

    I love my Dell. In fact, I love all three of them, and my ASUS netbook as well. I only say that because they are dependable – I have made one call to tech support for all three, and they overnighted us a replacement power supply, which we discovered was damaged because of our own actions. The computers are seven, five, and four years old, and almost any program you can buy today runs on any PC built over the last ten years.

    Not the Mac. You need software that runs on the OS that was introduced in 2001, but even that won’t run unless you have a Mac that runs the Intel processors that were introduced in 2006. So you either sell the Mac or throw them away – hardly frugal.

    I wish you could tell us exactly what it is that makes applications “function much better on Macs.” The programs are the same, presumably? Macs are built the same as PCs using exactly the same components. If a PC motherboard fails you can replace it for under $40 and your time. An Apple motherboard will cost you upwards of $100 if you want one for Macs made in the last ten years. It goes on and on – I’m about to sell my computer for a new one, but I’ll keep the monitor, and judging from Craigslist I should get $500 for the old one which is four years of use and it cost me $800. You’ll get on-site service in the first year – no need to go to the Apple Store.

    I think that spending around $1500 on an Apple desktop or laptop is crazy compared to spending $500 each on roughly the same thing from Dell.

  34. kristine says:

    @Nancy- I use both routinely. We have 4 laptops in the house: 3 dell, 1 mac. t work I teach in both a Mac Lab, and a PC Lab. I am equally adept at both. I find no difference n program performance IF the correct specs are met. My 1500 machine is suitable for reviewing/editing upwards of 45 student movies a semester in Final Cut and/or Premiere. Not to mention several hundred 20 layer PSD projects. I have needs.

    I can honestly say that my preference for Macs developed solely as a result of the lack of problems, and fantastic customer service, nothing else. I have never met a person who used a PC for 11 years straight without need of upgrade for the new CS suites, or a single problem whatsoever. We have had to replace our PCs on an average of 3 years each, due to breakdowns, and general failure of parts.

    Most people prefer the Mac, if they have one, for the ease of use of I-Movie. My students love photo-booth. But those are toys, and I would never spend more for toys. The PC advantage is a wider range of games and programs available everywhere, for less. The biggest disadvantage is viruses.

  35. Kai says:

    You’re taking it too far because you won’t justify wants.
    When you buy a TV, that isn’t confusing a want with a need. You can accept that it is a want, and then since you have the money available, and you want the TV more than you want other things, you can choose to buy it.
    It’s important to differentiate between needs and wants, but it’s perfectly acceptable to spend some money on wants.

  36. EngineerMom says:

    I also read this as “my computer is dying, but I’m not comfortable spending that amount of money right now, so I’ll work with what I have.”

    I think the point Trent was trying to make is that it’s easy for us to justify to ourselves that something we really want has magically become a “need”. He was simply using the computer as an example, and he was also saying it’s acceptable to spend money on wants, but to be aware of the fact that they ARE wants, not to try to falsely justify them as needs.

    There’s a phrase I’ve seen floating around the ‘net that sums up Trent’s current approach to his computer situation: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”

    I’ve watched my MIL buy new things (clothes, stuff for the house, groceries b/c she can’t remember if she has that item stashed in her overflowing pantry) because she “needs” them then listen to my FIL complain about how he’ll have to work until he’s dead to find fault with someone making do with what they already have.

  37. Nancy says:

    To all, I think we all agree that needs and wants are two different things. We live in such a culture that we do have many choices, and therein lies the difficulty for some. We all need to THINK before purchasing anything; food, clothing, housing, and computers. Because once you buy it, you then become very responsible for it. Because of this, my children barter and trade with each other, because a trip to the store may not be the best use of time and money. I just love the thoughtful dialog that flows on this site.

  38. Kate says:

    #36 EngineerMom: agree with you. I cleaned a relatives house when she was in the hospital and found literally 100’s and 100’s and 100’s of dollars of cleaning supplies, gardening supplies, clothes, office supplies, first aid supplies, gifts, wrapping paper, etc. She “needed” everything. Which was sad–she had to take out a home equity loan because money was tight. Shopping, though, was her entertainment of choice and even purchases at the dollar store add up quickly.

  39. Karen says:

    I understand your desire to be clear to yourself about what is a want vs. a need. But, putting off a purchase of a piece of equipment that is crucial to your livelyhood seems self-defeating to me. If you have the money, have no other debts, then purchase the computer that will enable you to do your job most effectively. You’ll thank yourself later.

  40. CW says:

    Not all libraries offer DVD’s for free. Our library charges $2 per night (plus tax) for a DVD. The Red Box rental station in my grocery store charges $1, which is an even better deal.

  41. Steve in W MA says:

    I disagree with the first two posters. Just because something is a planned purchase and is something that you use (“an investment”, in the parlance) doesn’t mean that it’s smart to buy it.

    If you have existing equipment (in Trent’s case, a laptop and a desktop) that fulfils the functions you need, there is no reason to buy replacement equipment and it is in fact a waste of money.It’s not good stewardship of your money to replace perfectly good equipment that meets your needs just because something that might work a little better is available.

  42. Steve in W MA says:

    What does Trent do on his computer? Basically, he writes articles (word processing) and does a little HTML coding.

    Even a computer that breaks down once a day can handle that without impacting his productivity. Like him, I see no “need” for an updated machine given the needs he has. The new computer isn’t going to help him write faster, or better, or help his coding.

  43. Julie says:

    I agree with previous posters that it seems kind of odd discussing the wants-versus-needs mindset about computers.

    However, you could have taken it one step further and said, “I don’t *need* to work at home. I could go get a job like everyone else.” You work at home because you *want* to work at home. In order to do that successfully, you *need* functioning equipment. A new motherboard or a $200 eBay PC will gain you another few years of productivity.

    As you have pointed out multiple times, there is a difference between cheap and frugal. This particular post makes you look cheap, even though most of us understand the point you’re trying to make.

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