The Gray Area Between Want And Need

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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