Rethinking “Needs”

Back in elementary school, I remember an activity where we had to list all of the things that we “needed” each day. Then, we reviewed our lists as a class and the teacher questioned many of our “needs” to the point where we placed them in a different category entirely- “wants”. When it was all said and done, we discovered that many of the things we thought we needed, were actually things we just wanted and thus, could really go without.

So, granted, the lists we made in 3rd grade might seem a little simplistic now. But the basic premise remains: we have needs, and then we have things that are wants. I suggest we add a third category: things we are taught to need or want. How familiar to you are some of the things on this list:

  • I need/want to live in a nice, big house in a suburb or nice part of town
  • I need/want to drive a new car
  • I need/want to have a big closet full of stylish clothes
  • I need/want to have a big closet full of shoes
  • I need/want to own the latest technology available
  • I need/want to have nice things in my house, including furniture, textiles and decorations
  • I need/want to be successful
  • I need/want to have a good career

I think we’re programed to think that we want or think that we need a lot of this stuff. Do we really need all of this to have a good life? To be happy? Heck no.

What is “success”?

Let’s look for a second at the typical, middle-class “American” values around this concept of what makes us “successful”. Generally, it’s defined around the idea that making a lot of money and spending it on buying a lot of stuff is what is good for us. All that stuff that we accumulate is supposed to make us happy. Security and independence are worked in there, too, along with a good dose of that idea that we should be “working hard”.  We don’t want to need any help- sometimes we’re running around like a bunch of 3 year olds crying out “I can do it myself!!” when in reality, we’re screwing up everything. What do we have to do to make a lot of money? Get a college education (often accumulating tens of thousands in student loans), then start working. Then we work, work, work, and work some more- all the while buying all that stuff we want. Buy the cars and make the payments, the house and pay the mortgage for the next 30 years, the clothes that will make us “look professional”, the shoes that look great but mostly just hurt our feet, get the TV’s, the newest phone, buy all new towels for the guest bath because they’re on sale after all, and don’t forget to have some kids and buy them every piece of plastic junk that they ask for, too. Do that for 30 or 40 years until you can (hopefully) finally retire and do what you really want to do! But wait, now you’re at or near 70 years old. Did you know that past retirement, the average American only lives for 3 more years? THREE. Let that sink in for a second. Really sink in. Do you really want to wait that long do do the things in life that you’re craving to do NOW? Do you want to only have 3 years to try to squeeze a lifetime full of missed opportunities into?

I can practically hear the “buts” right now!

But…..I need to make a living!

But…..the economy stinks and stuff is expensive!

But…..I like all my stuff!

But…..I enjoy the financial freedom my salary provides!

But…..I have to pay the bills!

But….. I have debts!

But….. doesn’t everyone want that stuff?

I hear you. No one is advocating for abandoning all earthly possessions and living in a hut somewhere (unless upon inspection, that’s what you really want. Then, I say, go for it). This topic doesn’t need to be all or nothing, black or white. And I’m also not going to sit here and tell you Carrie and I don’t own stuff, because that certainly isn’t true, either. But we have certainly examined our lives, determined what is actually important to us, and cut out some stuff that we deem just not worthy of our time and resources. In return, this allows us the freedom to place value on things other than money, careers, a narrow definition of success, and stuff. Maybe you, reader, are ready to do the same?


I think the first question is asking yourself what it is that you really want. What do you really value? Relationships? Is your primary relationship with your partner shaky? When is the last time you actually had a conversation with your child? Has it been months since you reconnected with friends? Maybe you have a passion, be it baking, sculpting, acting, playing a certain instrument, creating things- and you did that thing long ago where you packaged your passion away, in order to pursue “grown up” things like a career where you could make money and become a “success”. Maybe you’re the adventurous sort who feels the burning desire to travel the world, seeing and trying new things- but that job that pays really well also keeps you firmly tethered. Don’t worry. When you’re re-evaluating your entire life and future, take your time.

Once you’re ready to live your life more for yourself, and less according to how you’ve always thought you should live it, you’re probably ready to re-evaluate where you’re investing your resources. By resources here, I’m talking about money, of course, but also time and effort. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things Carrie and I have decided to go without, in order to allow us to do what we really want:

  • I (Shannon), currently do not have a job. My former career as a Principal in an urban charter school was very demanding of my time and of my emotions. As I began re-evaluating my life, I quickly realized that an extremely demanding career with it’s accompanying long hours was no longer something that I wanted. And yes, that meant sacrificing that cushy salary. And yes, this was a change of monumental proportions. I have no regrets. Ok, yes, I do realize that not everyone can just run out tomorrow and quit their jobs. The fact remains that so many of us really pretty much hate working. All I’m saying is this: do you really need to do what you’re doing now? So many of us look around, see where we are, feel powerless to change it and just move into acceptance mode. Challenge acceptance mode!
  • The big house in the ‘burbs. Once upon a time I actually owned that house. The day I closed on that house, I drove over there to get started on picking out paint colors and such. Do you know what popped in my head when I pulled in the driveway for the first time as the homeowner? I’m stuck. The mortgage on this place is so huge that I’m stuck working like a dog for the foreseeable future. Just a little buyer’s remorse there. Carrie and I could have moved in there together; it was bigger and had a huge yard. Instead, I sold that house and Carrie and I live in the small house she bought within the city limits 9 years ago for next to nothing, and has fixed up. No regrets here, either.
  • Driving new cars. We have three cars (which is probably one to many!), but they are all over 10 years old, and paid off. Both of us have owned, and paid dearly for, brand new cars in the past. No more. Car payments are what- $400, $500, or more per month? No thank you. When we are in the market to buy something, we buy used and look for quality.
  • Cable TV. We have Netflix and wifi, but no cable. We watch less TV because of it and waaaaaaaaay less commercials. So fewer commercials in fact, that I notice when our kids DO happen to catch a commercial, they are prone to immediately request whatever it is they were just sold. It’s very obvious and we usually share a chuckle and then give them a resounding NO. Amazing how effective marketing to children is.
  • Phone landline. I mean, it’s really not necessary any more. Easy.
  • Big holiday celebrations. We don’t have anything against holidays. We just make a concerted effort not to buy into the excessive consumerism that surrounds them. This means home-made, re-used, or cobbled together from stuff we found around the house costumes for Halloween. It means less presents at Christmas, and instead, we take a two-week trip to Florida. It means an old fashioned, hand written love letter on Valentine’s Day.
  • Eating out constantly. We generally eat at home. When we do eat out, it’s novel and an experience and I genuinely think this makes it more special.
  • Shopping as entertainment. I used to do this so frequently and give it no thought. What are we going to do on a Saturday afternoon? Let’s go shopping (and wind up buying a bunch of junk we really don’t need)! Find something- anything- to do to entertain yourself and your family besides shopping. Shop only if you really need something, and then stick to what you came for.
  • Huge walk-in closets overflowing with clothes and shoes. Carrie and I share a pretty standard sized closet, and both of our clothes fit inside it. This includes clothes for all seasons. It helps that I don’t need “work” clothes any more, and Carrie essentially wears a self-imposed uniform every day to work. Truth be told, I still think I have entirely too many clothes! Both of us tend to wear the same things, week after week, and could probably easily get rid of at least half of what’s in our closet. Maybe that’ll be a new blog post for another day!

I hope that some of this inspires you to look at areas of your life where maybe you’ve been feeling less than satisfied, and begin to examine them for potential avenues of change.

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