How to break the belief that it’s only okay to spend on your needs

You have much more control over what you define as wants and needs than you think.

Some people have a lot of trouble spending money.

I’m talking about the people who see spending as a “bad thing”, who feel shame when they have to part with their money.

For these people (and raise your hand if this sounds like you), money becomes a morality issue, and a very binary one: “spending is bad, not spending is good.” And this bleeds over into the self, in the way that we so often feel like we are what we do: “If I spend a lot of money, I am a bad person, and if I spend a little, I am a good person.

That struggle is real. Imagine if every time you were confronted with a purchase, it was tied how good of person you were? (Many of you don’t have to imagine this.)

Unpacking this isn’t something one can do in a single blog post (or even a bunch of them); it’s something that’s done over time with a coach that specializes in the emotional side of finance.

But, I can offer you something to contemplate, which can have the effect of short-circuiting this train of thought, and lead to you to potentially relate to your purchases in a more less-judgmental way.

It refers to how we look at our “needs” versus “wants.”

Needs and wants

In all but the most extreme cases, people generally don’t feel shame at spending anything.

What people dislike is spending on things they don’t “need”. Things that they “need” are totally okay.

  • Groceries? A need. Fine.
  • Eating out? A want. Not fine.
  • Classes leading toward your degree? Fine.
  • Classes not leading toward your degree? Not fine.
  • Trip to visit your mom? Fine.
  • Trip to Hawaii? Not fine. (Well, unless your mom happens to live there.)

You get my point. “Needs” are okay, while “wants” are not.

Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t. There is a lot of assumption and decision making going on, and you may not realize it.

What do you really need?

Do you drive to work? Most people do.

Do you need to drive to work? I don’t think you do. Public transportation is generally abhorrent in this country, but except in the most remote places, it generally exists. I even got around by bus in Phoenix of all places a few years back (in June, no less; I never said I was smart).

So you could take public transit. Most likely.

Going even further, do you even need a car?

Don’t automatically say yes. Think about it. Could you get around with a combination of public transit, active transport (walking/biking) and the occasional taxi or rental car?

It costs on average over $8000 a year to own and operate a car. Would not owning a car be cheaper? I think it would. That’s about $20 per day you’d have to do other things.

I didn’t say “more convenient”. I said “possible.” It would probably suck a lot. (I went car-free for a year a few years back, and it wasn’t a ton of fun, and that was in Portland of all places).

My point is, that you probably don’t “need” a car. You may have just thought that you did, because of the convenience and all of the benefits that it offers you.

I’m not advocating for car-free living. Instead, what I’m trying point out to you is that what you thought of as a “need” is actually flexible and open to interpretation.

You were already doing this, you just didn’t realize it.

Do you know it’s a need?

You need food, shelter, clothing, utilities, and transportation. How you get to these things are a matter of opinion and circumstance.

Now, if what is seen as a “need” may not actually be a “need”, how can you say for sure?

No really, how can you really say for sure?

You can’t. Not without making an active judgement. “I deem this to be a need.”

You’re actually giving yourself agency to say that something is a need. It means that you deem it to be okay to spend money on.

If you can do this with some spending habits, what would it be like to grant yourself this permission for all spending habits?

What would it be like to say what is a need…and then to make it okay?

You can choose what you need

You are making an active judgement. “I deem this to be a need.” You just didn’t realize it.

I’m sidestepping the whole “needs are okay, but wants are not” issue here very specifically, because challenging morality in people doesn’t seem effective to me. (Try changing someone’s mind about something central to someone’s identity, and see how well it goes.)

If you want to see “needs” as the only thing that you allow yourself to spend money on, fine.

All I’m saying, is that you are actually choosing actively what those needs are. You’re already doing it, you may just not realize it.

You have this control. Now all you need to do is give yourself permission to exercise it. That trip to Hawaii? You have my permission to treat that as a need. And needs are okay to spend money on, remember?

Do you have trouble spending money on things that you don’t see as needs? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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