This is a guest post from Gail Vaz-Oxlade, the host of the popular Til Debt Do U$ Part on CNBC (Saturday nights at 10 and 10:30). Gail is a columnist for MoneySense, Chatelaine, and Zoomer Magazine and blogs daily at her website, where she also offers terrific tools people can use to dig themselves out of the hole. Gail’s latest book is Debt-Free Forever.

I’ve been working with a lot of people lately who can’t tell when enough is enough. Termed “Princesses”, these babes have a sense that they can have whatever they want, whenever they want it. And while people might look at them dumb-struck at their sense of entitlement, there are more of them than you might guess.

When I ask people why they buy stuff, they tell me it’s because they need it — whatever IT is. But that’s not always true. In fact, that’s hardly ever true. Fact is, many people don’t need most of the stuff they buy — they want it.

It’s easy to confuse needs with wants. You work hard and deserve nice things, right? Whether you’re thinking about buying a big-ticket item (we need a vacation) or smaller impulse purchases (I need a double-tall latte with Venetian chocolate), your sense of entitlement can muddy the waters when it comes to what you want and what you really need.

Where do you suppose our sense of entitlement comes from?

People who are raised in North America may have a sense of entitlement simply because they have no idea how lucky they are. If you’ve never been hungry, never wondered where you would sleep, never had to go without shoes, then your sense of what is by rights your due may be askew.

If every winter your family went on vacation to a warmer clime, if every summer you went to camp, if each fall you started the new school year with a fresh wardrobe and all the school supplies you could imagine, why would you think you were entitled to any less as an adult? Even if you haven’t got the income to support it, you have no idea why you can’t have everything you want when you want it. And if you’ve been handed a pile of credit, no doubt you’ll satisfy your sense of entitlement, damn the long-term costs.

People who watch a lot of TV, read flashy magazines and walk the malls have a sense of entitlement because they come to believe that “everyone else has one so I want one too.” But if everyone else is going into debt to have the lifestyle you crave, then what you’re craving isn’t real — it’s smoke and mirrors. Playing the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses game is stupid at the best of times, but it’s suicidal if you’re doing it on credit.

Just look at the size of the houses we’re living in now compared to those our parents were raised in. In 1974, people were having more kids (the average American family size was 3.1 people vs. 2.6 people in 2004) but living in houses far smaller than we’re willing to settle for today (the average home was 1695 square feet, but it was 2349 square feet in 2004). And only the rich and famous could afford granite counters and marble floors. Now we want a room for every child, plus a living room, family room, media room, and kids’ playroom. And if we have to share a television, we’re hard-done-by. Unfortunately, as our expectations have gone up, our ability to pay for them has been seriously challenged.

While we like to castigate the younger generation for their rampant sense of entitlement, it’s not just a problem of youth and immaturity. Look at the words that have arisen to describe our sense of entitlement: words like “consumerism” and “shopaholic” and “affluenza” and “selfish capitalism” and “consumercide” and the counter “sustainable living”.

Have we become so addicted to having (instead of being) that we’re no longer able to distinguish between needs and wants? Is acquisition of more Stuff our new life’s blood?

If you had to pick one day of the week on which you will buy nothing, how hard would that be for you? How much planning does it take? How addicted to shopping are you?

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