Wants, needs, and the sense of entitlement

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?

More about...Psychology

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Lizzy
Lizzy

Gail, I love you! I love “Til Debt Do Us Part”, you are so funny, and some of the people you try to help just don’t get it. I love your tough love approach! It’s such a great show. I don’t have much to say about this article though because I can go weeks without buying so much as food, nevermind the latte’s I never buy. But still thanks for writing it! You are the BEST!!

toni
toni

I adore Gail and her show. She is has such a strong and positive approach and endless patience with those idiots she has to deal with. She is the real deal.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun

Great, great post! My husband and I are just now trying to get our budget together. We’ve been blessed with no debt, but we’re having a hard time separating wants from needs so we can start saving. Resisting the urge to buy a car has been hard, especially when most of our friends have cars. 2 of my best friends just bought houses, and I’m having a hard time reminding myself that I can’t afford that yet. I’ve learned to be happy with my $20 cell phone with prepaid minutes (about $20 a month), even when 90% of my friends… Read more »

Jan
Jan

My challenge has moved from not buying something new every day- to not using something new every day. Using left overs creatively. Sewing those holes in clothing. Rereading older, favorite books.
When we returned from overseas we totally got it. Somewhere in the last 16 years we have lost it again. It is difficult to regain. Helping our children see that they had a great life without an expensive preschool or the latest toy is another challenge- since all of their friends are purchasing or doing for the baby generation.

LMR
LMR

Rereading old faves is great, Jan, but why not use your public library to obtain some new titles?

Then again, some of the hot titles have a pretty long waiting list. “Fifty Shades of Grey” pretty much describes the color my hair will be before my turn comes around! 😀

k
k

Gail, do you cal them “princesses” and “babes” even if you are talking to men? Last I checked, this wasn’t a woman-specific problem.

Daniel
Daniel

The article doesn’t seem to draw a clear line as to what is a need and what is want. For instance, we allow only one or two ‘shopping’ purchases per month. However, we do go out to eat and like. There are many days when we purchase nothing, but that is because meals are planned in advance and we didn’t need to buy gas today. What about our house, is it a need or a want. Could I live in something smaller? Sure. The article seems geared towards understanding exactly what a want is and what a need is but… Read more »

mitigateddisaster
mitigateddisaster

I tend to agree with this critique of the article. I *know* I have a problem differentiating wants from needs (and btw, although I grew up in the US, it was below the poverty line, not winter vacations and summer camps) and some additional tips – beyond merely recognizing I feel entitled to things – would be more useful. I constantly have to remind myself, I don’t *need* stylish new work clothes; I don’t *need* a fancy $200 juicer; I don’t *need* to go away for my birthday. It’s just so easy to justify those things (I have to look… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

Apparently not very hard for us. We are often way too busy to shop (as we discuss in our post today). http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/external-effects-on-spending/

We’re lucky if the fridge is kept stocked with milk for cereal. (And many times we end up with yogurt parfaits or oatmeal when it we’ve been out for a few days.)

Dan
Dan

While some parts of the article may have truth (for some Americans), I think the writer has made a gross and unfair generalization of North America. I am actually rather insulted by it.

MikeTheRed
MikeTheRed

@4 – Daniel. I think the point is to be conscious of what is truly a need vs a want and making the right decisions based on that. At the most basic level, needs are: 1. Housing – This is the bare-minimum needed to be safe, warm & dry to accommodate you/your family. This is a variable thing, but most get more house than they need at a minimum. 2. Food – The minimum to meet nutritional needs. This includes caloric intake, proper balance of vitamins, minerals etc. Again, variable based on your family. 3. Clothing – Clean clothing that… Read more »

carmie
carmie

It’s pretty bad that I only made around $2500 last year (no, I didn’t forget a zero) and am still in the top 15% of world incomes.

Meredith
Meredith

I’m a frugal person, raised by parents who’s parents were depression era – DIY’ers. I tend to not buy things if I can make them (like I’m re-covering my toddlers car seat at the moment and taking a break to read my google reader). However. As a child, I tended to have 1 pair of jeans. If they got holes, to bad. 1 pair of shoes for school, 1 for church. Wore out? Too bad, can’t afford new ones. So I find myself overcompensating for my lack as a child, on my children. My toddler has probably 10 pairs of… Read more »

Ree
Ree

I’m really disappointed by the opening paragraph of this post. I’ve only been reading GRS for a few months, but the sexist tone strikes me as very out of character for the site.

Sassy
Sassy

Gail, it is such a treat to read your writing in both of the pf blogs I read every day! I always thought I had it all together until I realised that yes I save money and have no debt apart from mortgage, but my spending always matched my income. I have been wasting thousands of dollars on non essentials, whilst not being willing to spend a couple of hundred (tax deductible) dollars a year on income protection insurance. Talk about whacky priorities! I am seeing a financial advisor next Monday and hope to get all my ‘needs’ in place… Read more »

Beth
Beth

Great article. So often we hear that we need to differentiate between wants and needs, but often why we confuse the two is not examined. I have a friend who struggles with debt, but I could reduce monthly spending by eliminating a lot of those so-called “wants.” It would drive me nuts hearing her financial frustrations while knowing that she couldn’t go a weekend without shopping – why couldn’t she get it? Now I can better understand why she does this – it’s how her family always functioned and she is just trying to maintain the status quo she has… Read more »

PigPennies
PigPennies

I think what it often comes down to in our very privileged society is weighing out your wants. Do you want to live in a big house, or do you want to live in a smaller house and use the money saved to travel? Do you want that expensive SUV, or do you want to drive a cheaper car while putting the difference in payment into a Roth IRA for your retirement? Real wants are so very basic, but if you’re missing out on your dreams, or financial security, or a debt free life because of the wants that whittle… Read more »

PigPennies
PigPennies

edit: Real NEEDS are so very basic…

Samantha
Samantha

I like that you brought up the feeling of needing things as an adult because you had had them provided as a child. This is what I think of when I watch My First Place on… TLC? Or HGTV? Most of the buyers are very young, putting little down, and getting what little down payment they do have from their parents. I think it’s the same thing there – they grew up in a house with hardwood floors and crown molding, so why shouldn’t they have it in their own house? Of course they’re ignoring that they’re 23 years old… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Funny thing, just the other day I got into an argument with someone on this blog– an outwardly affluent person who “had to” pirate movies/tv shows because he felt entitled to have them when he wanted them, and even wrote encyclopedic arguments to rationalize his crime. It wasn’t a pleasant exchange, but I feel extra-vindicated by your post. Anyway, this past weekend my wife and I went grocery shopping with a clear-cut list for a predesign menu. We used to go out through the aisles and say “oh, we need this” and “I forgot we need this too” and end… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

@12 El Nerdo
That’s a really neat analogy. Go agricultural revolution!

Cea Wall
Cea Wall

I liked this: 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.” Ever since I ditched my cable service and gave away my main TV, I have felt so much more relaxed and at ease. I gave up magazines long ago, and only leaf through when I get my hair colour done. And not going to malls keeps my mind away from needing to buy the nice spring season shoes or the cute dress in… Read more »

jim
jim

“(the average home was 1695 square feet, but it was 2349 square feet in 2004)”

TO be clear, the average NEW home was 2,349 in 2004. The average new home is not the average home. Median home size was 1,758. Yes new homes are getting bigger but new homes aren’t the average home.

KM
KM

I find it more helpful to just acknowledge that I “can’t” have my want/need at this time even if I need or want it. I just tell myself, “no” and deal with the pain.

That way I don’t have to distinguish between wants vs needs-that’s where your “logical” brain that wants it all will just trip you up.

Meghan
Meghan

“Now we want a room for every child, plus a living room, family room, media room, and kids’ playroom.”

When I was a child I shared a bed with my sister, never mind my own room. And I’m not even that old. Playroom, we had two choices…living room or backyard.

It’s funny how people think their children need new clothes, fancy toys, private lessons, etc. It seems like it’s the parents needing these things so that they have what they consider to be perfect children.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

This argument is completely meaningless. Yeah, new houses are bigger than they were 50 years ago, but so what? Houses 50 years ago were bigger than they were 50 years before that, and you can carry that back to the beginning of time. When do you get to make the cutoff when something moves from a “need” to a “want”? How many square feet? If we’re using proof by induction to say “if X wasn’t a need in year N-1, then it’s not a need in year N”, then we come to the logical conclusion that our only “needs” are… Read more »

Megan
Megan

I think the problem is that when you WANT a new pair of jeans, let’s say, you know you NEED clothes that fit and thus you “justify” the $70 jeans instead of going to a thrift store and getting $7 jeans. In other words, it’s not just separating “wants” and “needs” but being able to recognize that one can be the other and easily you can replace a “need” with a “want” at a higher cost. For me, I really, really “want” a lot of things and sometimes it’s hard to say “no” to myself, but I do try and… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

You know what, ignore my last comment. I was going to edit it and delete the whole thing, but I can’t because time’s expired for that. Just ignore it, I don’t even want to start the argument.

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy

Tyler, there’s a level at which “improving” your life is not really improvement. Growing up with your own room is not necessarily better than growing up sharing a room, just like driving a Lexus isn’t necessarily better than driving a Hyundai. At some point, these “improvements” end up costing too much in terms of both time and money, at which point they’re no longer improving the quality of your life.

It’s knowing where that line is that’s important.

bobj
bobj

Harsh.

mbelousov
mbelousov

This article hit home. Sometimes I think Americans would rather stand at a off/on-ramp with a cardboard sign – rather than give up their coffees. Most of them are headed in that direction anyways (you will see with the baby boomers shortly)….

Sad story, but true.

Casey
Casey

Most readers here are going to have a hard time reconciling the true entitlement mentality with a sense of want vs. need, simply because we have a clear idea of what exactly constitutes a want and a need. We all have wants that we’re willing to sacrifice for. A bigger house that is absolutely necessary, a nicer car, trips abroad, etc. But we’re doing it with clear eyes, recognizing that we don’t have a god-given right to these things and that we could get by without them. Many people can’t make that distinction; my ex-wife considered a new $1000 purse… Read more »

Eric D. Greene (artist)
Eric D. Greene (artist)

Turning the TV off changes everything.

Sarah
Sarah

I figure there’s nothing wrong with buying things you can afford. Yes, many items fall into the “wants” category rather than the “needs” category but many of us work hard in order to fulfill wants as well as needs. As we can see when reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, what makes money enjoyable isn’t the money itself but what it can be used for. Scrooge was pretty much as wealthy at the end of the story as he was at the beginning but life is much happier when you’re not eating gruel by a low fire in a freezing house.… Read more »

Vernor
Vernor

Let’s see, another post about “needs versus wants.”

Elementary school is over. Can we go to grad school now?

partgypsy
partgypsy

I don’t have cable so I don’t watch the poster’s show. I agree with her in general (there is a segment of this US society that has higher expectations than earning ability) she is preaching to the choir on this forum. Some of us didn’t grow up with our own room and fancy vacations, believe it or not. And even if you can divide needs from wants (if you have ever traveled abroad you will find out pretty much everything is wants), it still doesn’t help make spending decisions any easier. My child having piano lessons is a want, but… Read more »

Emma
Emma

@ Tyler (#25)
Don’t worry, I ignored your ridiculous post before you said to! It’s a blog article, calm down!

Jaime
Jaime

I think its a good idea to give children their separate rooms, kids need their own privacy, I’m an only child and I had a room to myself growing up so did most of my friends. My mom was the 7 of 8 kids and there was never any privacy so she wanted to give me that, oh and men spend too not just women. If a family can afford it then what’s wrong with that? IMO from what I’ve seen most people feel entitled, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If I believe I want a vacation… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime

@Tyler-Actually I kind of agree with you, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a bigger house if you can afford it.

I don’t criticize people who live in mansions or mcmansions if they want to. Its their life, if they can afford it then that’s awesome. I only frown when people stretch themselves into debt.

Devona
Devona

You are speaking my language. Over the weekend I was talking to my sister about people and their sense of entitlement. About that larger house, it’s not about getting the larger house because you can afford it, the point is that some people feel as if there is some innate reason that they deserve it. And that’s the sense of entitlement that she talking about.

Sonja
Sonja

Gal @ #26: AMEN! My husband and I are often saying we’d be happier if we gave away 40% of our stuff. I decided after looking at my full closet of clothes (in many sizes!) to take a year hiatus from buying clothes and I can’t believe, 6 months in, how easy it has been. I shop my closet and have new incentive to lose those creeping pounds! And now I am working on purging the closet because I still don’t wear probably 60% of what is in there. Small example from our house, we still have lots of work… Read more »

Regular Reader
Regular Reader

@Tyler

Ignore Tyler’s meaningless rant….Done!

Pathetic. Why don’t we all just look at the trees and continue to miss the forest.

chacha1
chacha1

Like El Nerdo, I used to be a demented spendthrift and it was a long painful process to become rational about money. I wouldn’t say I was ever a shopping addict, but I definitely used to shop for entertainment. And I never was very influenced by TV ads – but only because the things I want are not advertised on TV. To me, money sanity is not about spending ONLY on “needs.” It’s about choosing between my “wants.” Some of my wants are quite trivial, and some of them are important. I try to stomp on the trivial desires most… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen

I think perhaps the word “entitled” is the issue in this article. To me, it implies that someone ELSE is responsible to provide for you, rather than providing for yourself. If viewed in that light, the comments regarding providing for your own needs and wants don’t seem applicable here.

getagrip
getagrip

Why is it only people in “North America” with a sense of entitlement? I suppose in the author’s homeland, whatever British or former British empire parcel her accent implies she’s from, they don’t expect to have TVs, electricity, dishwashers, etc. and I am sure none of them have any spending issues whatsoever. The problem as I see it is that she’s seeing the bad actors for her TV show and extrapolating to everyone. Her sample pool is more than a bit skewed. I have a friend who spent three weeks between jobs in Alaska in a two man tent, with… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

@40 Last I checked, Canada was part of North America. Don’t quote me on that though.

balancedB
balancedB

Love the essay Gail, great writing. Question Consumption. Work and spend less, create and connect more.I think you need to add more of this to your show! ( i.e.) The principles and philosophy of living life a better way, people need to hear someone say it. Watch Gail’s show–it’s great! Watching in So. California

Jaime
Jaime

I disagree with the writer in another point. She seems to believe that North Americans are the only ones who are into consumerism. Has the writer heard of China’s new middle class and new rich? They’re quite affluent and like to shop too. What about the millionaire fair in Moscow? I’m not making this up. There really is a millionaire fair in Russia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow_Millionaire_Fair More millionaires live in Moscow than anywhere else in the world. I’m half-Russian because my mom is Russian, I grew up in the U.S. and I became a Naturalized U.S. Citizen. Anyway, I’ve definitely traveled quite… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Of course consumerism and ostentation is a plague that ails the new rich everywhere, but having grown up in a 3rd world country I was shocked at the level of wealth that average Americans were used to, and what little they have to complain about, yet complain about. “Oh, boohoo, my car is 5 years old” (Son, you have a car, what the hell are you crying about???). There is a lot of money in this country, and while there is also real poverty and deprivation, most people are not aware of the lever of luxury they enjoy. Air conditioning… Read more »

Nan411
Nan411

El Nerdo just gave me a good chuckle…and yes the idea of a food fight is obscene.

kalyani
kalyani

I live in India and consumerism is hitting us hard after centuries of frugal living. But I do see the point of this author that there are certain people who are ‘Princesses’ and feel they are entitled to having what they want. We just celebrated our daughter’s wedding after saving for it for several years. At the same time, my cousin sister ( a divorced single mother) hosted a similar event, entirely on debt. She does feel her brothers or someone will pay up eventually or she will when her ship comes in. Some people do seem to sail on… Read more »

Spencer Davis
Spencer Davis

I guess she is just trying to maintain the status quo she has been accustomed too. She still has changes she needs to make if she wants to get her finances in order, but now I feel like I can be more patient and supportive because in America though the problem is compounded by the fact that we pretend that social classes don’t exist.

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