Day 17: Redefining Our Wants Versus Our Needs

“You have succeeded in life when
all you really want
is only what you really need.”
~Vernon Howard

If you are reading this post, the chances are good that you already have everything you need. Those of us who are living during these modern times, in the Western world (even in the midst of economic instability), are experiencing an abundance few of our ancestors could ever have imagined.

Clean water, housing, food, health care, higher education, law and order are all readily available.

And yet, despite our abundance, there are so many of us who are dissatisfied with life? Could it be that we’re destined to always want more, even when we know that it won’t bring us happiness and contentment?

When It All Changed

It was April 2009, 2 days before my husband and I were leaving for our first of many trips to Ethiopia. We had just begun work for a NGO (non-governmental organization) and we new our lives would never be the same. However, on this day I remember being so frustrated with a few elements of our home. I was busy packing medical supplies, treats for the orphanage, vitamins, soccer balls, etc. Stuff was everywhere, the dishwasher decided to die, I couldn’t find the shirt I wanted…”If only we had a bigger house, nicer appliances, and more clothes I wouldn’t be so frazzled.” I thought to myself. 

Nonetheless, 2 days later we kissed our children (there were only 2 back then) goodbye and boarded a plane to Africa.

I knew that I would be shocked by what I saw, but there was no way for my American mind to fully grasp all that we experienced that first trip. I do remember the exact moment, when we were operating a make-shift clinic in the Ethiopian countryside, when it all changed.

“Why is she here?” I asked the man through our translator. “She is very sick. She has no appetite. And the headaches…” he replied. 

I began my assessment. It was clear to me that this woman was suffering from a chronic illness. Without modern diagnostic equipment we were unable to determine what plagued her. She was frail, extremely thin, and exhausted from the journey. She appeared to me to be an elderly woman. I began preparing a bag of pain medications and vitamins. It was all we could do.

“How old is she?” I asked. “27” the man with her replied.

I couldn’t contain myself…she and I were the same age. As I stood there in that tiny room shocked and trying to control my emotions, I remember thinking “And I want a bigger house, a nicer kitchen, and more clothes? While this woman, who’s my age, is sick and close to death without hope of healing! How did this all go so wrong?”

Wants vs. Needs

Through all of time and in all cultures these needs are universal:

  • food
  • clean water
  • shelter from the elements
  • intimate relationships
  • participation in a community
  • recreation/leisure
  • the ability to create
  • insight into self
  • freedom

When just one of these needs are not met the feelings of discontentment, unhappiness, despair, and frustration can creep in; and the tempation will be to fill it with something else.

In our consumer-driven culture, they tell you to shop…just go buy something, you’ll feel better. And all of a sudden, out of no where, our wants become our needs because we’re trying desparately to fill a void.

To paraphrase Donella Meadows in her book Beyond the Limits, let me give you some suggestions to help you redefine your wants vs. your needs.

  1. You don’t need a bigger house or car, you need respect.
  2. You don’t need the newest cosmetics, you need to feel attractive.
  3. You don’t need a closet full of clothes, your need variety and beauty.
  4. You don’t need electronics (i.e. TV’s, gaming systems, stuff with apple logos, etc.), you need something worthwhile to do with your life.
  5. You dont’ need material things, you need identity, community, challenge, acknowledgement, love, and joy.

Could it be that our longing to feel satisfied is leading us to all the wrong places? Living frugally says, replace material things with those things that can not be bought. Those things such as relationships, creativity, community with like-minded others, self-awareness, recreation/leisure, and freedom!

All of us can’t take a trip to a third world country — in fact, I wish I would have been able to learn this lesson without it — but we can begin today blocking out the lies of our culture by redefining our wants versus our needs. 

Now It’s Your Turn

Daily Goal:
Consider the universal needs listed above, are there any in your life that are not being met?

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I’ve read many books on this topic over the years but none has revolutionized my thinking more than Your Money or Your LifeDay 17: Redefining Our Wants Versus Our Needs


  1. My Mamaw always used to tell me “Wish in one hand and poop in the other and see which one gets full quicker.” And that always stuck with me. Contentment with what we have usually eliminates the wish list.

  2. when i was a child my father worked for a goverment office, he had to travel in to small towns when people were very poor…… I learn so much that this experience… I like your article.

  3. Thanks for this reminder. The story of the Ethiopian woman is convicting and heart-breaking.

    “In our consumer-driven culture, they tell you to shop…just go buy something, you’ll feel better.”

    You’re right. But if we know that marketers lie, why do we so easily fall for their spiel? Is their rhetoric so persuasive? Is their image-casting that good? Or does something in us want to believe that we can buy our freedom?

  4. Kathryn Arnold says:

    Definitely sharing this.

  5. I love this post. So much! It inspired me and my husband to consider these 9 basic needs in the context of our own life as we strive for peace and happiness in the good life. This afternoon I posted about the exercise on my blog Marbles Rolling. I linked back here and just wanted to let you know! Thanks!

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