Updated on 07.04.07

The Gray Area Between Want And Need

Trent Hamm

You’re a student and you need to buy some pens for class. You visit an office supply store, see a box of cheap black pens for $4, but then you spy a few high-quality pens for $20. Do you buy the more expensive but not quite necessary pens?

You’re a parent who is new to buying diapers. The store brand box is $20, but many friends have recommended the Pamper Swaddlers box that cost $32. Is the extra $12 a useful expense?

I could make up countless scenarios like this that illustrate a common problem that many people have in deciding between necessary and unnecessary expenses. You actually do need the item, but it is available at different cost levels. kIs the more expensive one justifiable as a need or not?

The tricky part of a question like is is that there is no black and white to this issue – it’s all gray. Why? Generally, if you spend more on an item, you get a higher quality and more reliable variation. Is that worth paying extra for? You’re going to get different answers from different people.

Here’s my criteria for deciding if something is a want or a need:

I research items using Consumer Reports. What do they identify as the best of breed? What do they identify as the “Best Buy” in that product area? I generally try to buy either one of their “best buys” or one of their best of breed items, simply because I feel that reliability and quality generally pay for themselves.

However, if I don’t know about an item, I get the inexpensive version. Here’s an example. I use a Fisher Bullet space pen for most of my writing needs – that pen is reliable and always writes at any angle as soon as I pop it open – none of the frustration of cheap pens. Yet, prior to receiving one as a gift, I would by default buy the cheapest Bic pens possible. I had never really researched more expensive pens and the cheap Bics did the job. If my space pen were to be lost or have some issues, I would be willing to pay the price to replace it, but I have used it an incredible amount and it’s always worked immediately.

Basically, if I don’t know what I’m buying, I find it silly to buy anything more than one of the least expensive items. This philosophy works very well for inexpensive items, but gets questionable as items become more expensive. Yet, if I’m considering a more expensive purchase, I find it almost always worth the time to put in a bit of research before I head out to make a purchase.

To summarize, it’s fine to buy a more expensive version of an item if you know why you’re buying it and have found clear evidence to show why the extra cost is worthwhile. In the diaper case above, if you’ve read the Consumer Reports article and know that Pampers Swaddlers are much less prone to leaks and breakages than the cheaper ones, the purchase can be considered a necessity. However, with the pen example, you’re better off buying the cheap ones unless you know for sure that a more expensive pen is actually better (I stick by my recommendation of a Fisher Bullet space pen).

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  1. Javi0084 says:

    If you want cheap quality diapers, look no further than Target brand. Not even Costco sells cheaper diapers. They are about $7 cheaper than the national brand and my toddler can’t tell the difference.

  2. Jared says:

    My wife and I do a lot of this type of thinking – some things we buy in name-brand, some things we buy generic. For example, we only buy Kraft-brand Mac and Cheese (it’s the cheesiest! now ever cheesier!) for no reason other than we think it tastes better than the generic, and we’re willing to pay the extra money for what we feel is a better product.

    I also like expensive pens. I’m the type of person who always carries my own pen, and I don’t like to use other people’s pens (especially ones at places like fast food restaurants!), so I always sign with my own.

  3. paidtwice says:

    I’ve read your recommendations for Pampers diapers before, and if I only had my first child I would wholeheartedly agree. We tried numerous different brands and types with my son when he was born (I actually had a big chart and everything lol) and only the Swaddlers and then Crusiers worked consistently for him. Other brands were not at ALL worth the money it took to clean up the messes they made. Even the other expensive ones like Huggies.

    Enter my daughter two years later (whom I intended to use Pampers and only Pampers on…) and the hospital we were in only used Huggies. And unlike my son, the Huggies didn’t leak everywhere! So I got curious. We slowly purchased some generics for her…. and by and large, they worked. We had some mishaps along the way (not every single diaper worked great) but for the most part… we can use a generic on her just fine without leakage or issues. So she’s in generics and my wallet thanks me. Now if only my son would cooperate with the potty training….

    Just a tip from a two time parent. Your daughter may be just like your son in that only Pampers work well. Or she might save you some $$ if you end up not going the cloth diaper route and use disposables, and take to generics just fine. I have no explanation for this phenomenon at all.

    Good luck to you :)

  4. Mitch says:

    I’ve bought cheap Bic stics, and a third of them don’t write out of the box. Instead I’ve bought cheap Papermates stick pens every few years, but mostly I use fountain pens. Right now my Rotring fine (I think it’s the 600 series) is my favorite, probably cost me about $40 on sale a few years back, and my $4 bottles of ink (50 mL) last over a year, for home and work. It’s reliable, it writes sensually as silk, it makes me think more carefully, and the marginal cost is about the same as the Papermates and much less than, e.g., the fast-dying gel pens in so much favor of late. Yet people are afraid of it and think I’m eccentric. Maybe I am.

  5. Javi0084 says:

    Oh, and as for pens, I grab a hand full from work. Cheap marketing swag for the win.

  6. Liz says:

    Oh, see, I love the Bic pens! I can’t stand writing with anything else, I don’t know why. They are just my very favorite kind of pen.

  7. Minimum Wage says:

    I use real cheese to make mac and cheese, I don’t find it any more expensive than the boxed Kraft product, and it doesn’t have any of those funky additives and such.

  8. Mitch says:

    Maybe I was cursed… they knew about the temp assignment during college I spent singing “Copacabana Disco” in the filing room at Newell Rubbermaid.

    Actually, the Cristals weren’t too bad, but various people kept buying the Round Stics and they drive me absolutely buggy–black ink would barely write gray when they wrote at all. The only thing worse was the Corporate Express imitation, and even faculty would rarely take those off my previous desk.

  9. Mitch says:

    MW, do you have a good recipe for mac’n’cheese? Most Significant Digit keeps trying different saucepan recipes, and they never quite come out, not sure why but maybe the “healthy” recipes he finds at RecipeZaar are no good? He sometimes has migraines or gets crashy if he has too many carbs.

  10. Paul Freeman says:

    You should also take into consideration the amount of use you will put to the item. If you rarely write a cheap pen is the way to go as you will not get enough usage out of your fancy pen. If you write all day you’ll want to spend the time researching for a good pen.

    So instead of deciding on the basis of how much you know about an item, decide on the usage as well.

  11. Matt says:

    I agree that there is a very definite gray line when it comes to a lot of shopping. When you realize that you ‘need’ to buy something to what level of quality do you go to? I do pretty much the same thing as you unless I know about a specific product I go with the cheaper version (I’m also very picky about my pens and pay $20 a pack for them and think its a great purchase).

    I’ve always found that there are many gray lines between our wants and needs especially when our needs start becoming our wants.

  12. Kenny says:

    On board with the “when you don’t know what your’e buying, buy the cheap brand” plan. Actually we did a taste test once, and both my father-in-law and I preferred the “el cheapo” whiskey, whereas both of our wives chose the very expensive brand.

    My father-in-law was surprised, because up to this point, he thought the expensive stuff was worth it.

  13. Kyle says:

    I am also of the buy the cheap brands camp. I apply this mostly to food stuffs as this is our biggest reccuring bill (other than rent). Every once and again you end up with a dinner that wasn’t everything you wanted. Research done ques. answered and at 2@$.89 you can’t go that wrong. For the rest of my shopping Needs\Wants research can just mean asking around “hey you bought the …. didn’t you?” We all have our “car guy friend” Our “Techy Friend” ask around and then compare your buddies against someone reliable like consumer reports. for me most times the store labels are just fine.

  14. Ashia says:

    Ah yes, but it is deciding if you actually need the product in the first place that trips us up. We have been debating, for example, the merits of buying a pressure cooker or a crockpot in my house for a year. Ultimately, my husband believes we will save time and money on dinners while I believe we have lots of quick and cheap dinners already and we dont need to drop 120 on a pressurecooker or even 40 on a cheap crock pot.
    So, ultimately, we purchase neither and every time we see one in the store we debate it.
    now what?

  15. Bob says:

    True. As long as we have a proof that the expensive stuff is worthy of its high cost, then we can make a safe choice.

  16. Paul Freeman says:

    Ashia: is it possible you could borrow one from a friend to see how you’d get on with it ?

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