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(from Carl Richard’s New York Times’ Bucks blog, 10/17/2011 – click here for the original post. Carl is a Certified Financial Planner in Park City, Utah. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog and on his personal Web site, www.BehaviorGap.com.)

There seems to be a constant battle between what we have, what we need and what we think we want.
About a year after my wife and I had our first child, we moved into a neighborhood with homes built decades earlier. Each had two or three bedrooms. We soon noticed that when people had a third or fourth child they moved from the neighborhood in search of more space. One day I mentioned this to my next-door neighbor, who was 70 at the time, and he expressed surprise.

He and his wife had raised their five kids in one of the smallest homes on the block.

One of the most challenging personal finance issues we all face is the ever-expanding definition of “need.” Things we once considered clear luxuries have somehow becomes necessities, often without any consideration of how the change in status happened.

Cars that seemed just fine now seem old fashioned. Then there are children and their cellphones. Only a few years ago it would’ve seemed outlandish for 14-year-olds to need one at all, let alone the latest iPhone.

Achieving clarity about the difference between our needs and wants remains one of the biggest challenges in personal finance and a tremendous source of potential conflict within families. While simple in theory, the calculation is much more complex in practice.

One of the most discouraging parts of modern life seems to be this never-ending sense that we should want more. While this may not be true for everyone, it does seem like it’s become more difficult to be content with what we have. Whether it’s the media, our friends or even our family, it can be a challenge to separate real needs from wants. So here are a few of things to think about:

  • What if financial happiness is not about getting more but about wanting less?
  • What if things start out as wants and become needs not because the thing itself has changed but because our feelings about it have changed?
  • What if you can never really get enough of something that you don’t need?

From personal experience, I know that the shiny new toy I just had to have often ends up in a pile of things that I eventually need to sell on eBay. I’m not the only one that’s fighting this battle. It’s yet another example of why personal finance can be so complex. Because there’s no definitive list of the 100 things that every family must have, these end up being very personal decisions

I’ve talked about some of the ways I’ve seen people look for balance between wants and needs. They include things like sleeping on a decision overnight. My personal rule is that before I buy a book, it has to sit in my Amazon shopping cart for five days.

What have you done to help better define the difference between a want and need? And how have you focused more on being content with what you have instead of always striving for what you think you want?