Frugal Tuesdays: Distinguishing between needs & wants


This photo was taken in the summer of ’12 when we took our road trip.

I’ve thought often of that trip, & how we created many memories–being in the car together over a span of 3,000+ miles will do that. But more than the time in the car of course, was everything else. We were able to see a lot of sights, our favorite being the Redwood forest. As fun as it was, it cost a lot of money, & was quite a luxury.

Going to the beach, to Knott’s Berry Farm, just the cost of travel & food for six people–it added up quickly & it wasn’t cheap.

It will be awhile until we’re in a position to do that again. As much as I’d love to take our kids to Disneyland, or Disneyworld, or go on trips elsewhere, it’s just not in our budget.

After last week’s post on kid’s activities (so many great insights from you all, btw), I thought a lot about the kind of childhood I want for our kids.

April left a comment on facebook about her experience as a kid. She writes:

“My parents were ultra frugal to the point of being cheapskates and very selfish. I did almost no sports or lessons until 8th grade. When I insisted I do gymnastics. I caught on very quickly and was quite good for how old I was. I deeply regret not doing it sooner because I think I might have actually be *good*.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tia also had very few activities, but she had a different experience than April.

She writes:

“My parents put my in zero activities as a child, except for a few years of Camp Fire. I did no organized sports until 8th grade, and no instruments until middle school band. I was lonely (I am an only child), but the freedom was great. In my opinion, 90% of kid activities are parent driven, whether the kid wants to do it or not. They are overpriced and lead kids to be over scheduled. I plan on enrolling my son in zero activities unless he expresses an interest.

My lack of activities certainly didn’t hold me back. I was an honors student, a nationally ranked high school athlete, and I’m a successful adult. I say cut the activities and enjoy more time letting kids be kids.”

I think both April & Tia bring up good points to consider.

On one hand, you don’t want to hold a child back simply because you’re being a cheapskate, but at the same time, you don’t want to force your child to participate in something that is solely parent-driven.

Also as Tia points out, kids need some open/free time to explore & be creative as children, without the interference of structured adult-imposed activities.

Here’s my response to Tia:

“I agree about most kids activities being parent driven. I think if it was up to kids to choose, would they choose to practice piano or play? Play, of course. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have parent driven activities because many positive and beneficial things can be learned from the discipline it takes to learn a skill that is not easy to master. And most kids, when push comes to shove, are just not going to stick with a skill/hobby that takes time, discipline, & hard work to master, if the choice were left completely up to them.”

So it’s a balance, one that is not clear-cut. Mistakes will be made, & there may be some regrets. But I think Kelli sums it up best when she says:  “I know everything is more easily learned in childhood […] we all have finite resources, so as trite as it sounds, keep doing what you can and the rest will all come as it’s meant to.”

So, for us, we’ve decided we have a certain amount of income that we’re able to contribute towards our kid’s activities. It’s not much, but it’s something. For now this means one child is dance, the other scouts, and there will be sports in the fall.

Since we’re in getting out of debt mode, we can go to the most extreme measures, which is, spend only on needs, with no wants, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a more middle of the road approach is best, especially when this is a process that will take a few years to complete. I think that like with dieting or weight loss, if you get too extreme, there’s a high likelihood it will back fire.

Stephanie points out in a comment made on last week’s FT’s post, that sometimes people will feel that something is a need when you would see it as a want.

“I was talking about ways to get out of debt with a friend recently and I said how we were wanting to get a newer (used) piano and she, being a pianist like Justin, said that to her a piano would fall under a need (reasonably priced of course) and wouldn’t wait til debts were paid off.”

This is what makes the getting out of debt process an often complicated one. Especially when you throw kids in the mix, & because they have different needs than yours, which often cost money, you’re left to make that decision–is this is a true need, a want/need, or just a clear-cut want?

For us, we’ve determined our needs (things that we are absolutely essential/non-negotiable) to be:

1) Food. We’ve realized that we need to spend more than $600 a month on groceries for a family of seven. We haven’t stayed within our grocery budget for some time, & as Joseph put it, “spending less than $600 a month on groceries for our family is a fool’s dream.” I buy organic pretty much only at Costco, because that’s the only way we can afford it, & even at that, organic is not an absolute necessity in my mind. Organic food makes up maybe 10-20% of our total groceries.

2) Housing. Fortunately, our housing costs are covered by our BAH (a military housing stipend).

3) Transportation. We drive two used vehicles. One that has nearly 250K miles on it, the other, over 100K miles. Both are over 7 years old.

4) Clothes. We buy most our kid’s clothes at Kohl’s on sale + coupons, or at used kid’s clothing stores like Kid-to-Kid. It’s been a few years since Joseph or I have bought any clothes for ourselves, aside from a few shirts or jeans at Goodwill or Kohl’s.

5) Insurance. Life insurance, car insurance. Fortunately health insurance is covered through the Air Force.

6) Tithing. 10% + a small fast offering for the poor. Even when we’re getting out of debt.

7) Dates. (This also includes a getaway for a night, once or twice a year.) This is our marriage insurance. We’ve never touched our date money, & at times in our marriage Joseph has donated plasma so we could have money to go out. Some people have suggested swapping babysitting to save on costs, but what family is going to watch our five kids in addition to their kids on a Friday or Saturday evening? Even I wouldn’t do that. I think it’s too much to ask of anyone. So we pay for a babysitter, we go to the dollar movies, or out to eat. Otherwise, the “dates-at-home-after-the-kids-are-in-bed” turn out to be me asleep on the couch while Joseph watches something on hulu.

People wonder how Joseph & I have been able to do all that we have, in addition to having five children, & to be happily married after almost 10 years. My response: “We don’t yell at each other. We treat each other as equals. We kiss a lot. And we go on dates.”

8) Diapers. I’m doing cloth diapers this time around. I’m sure I’ll share more on another post.

9) Phones/internet. We switched to prepaid cell phones & use google voice for our home line (which is free, at least for a few more months). We do not have smart phones, ipads, or the like. Those things are cool, but for most people (unless you need it for work), are not a necessity, therefore, for us, are not on our needs list.

Everything else? Is a want. Even if it’s a need/want (like a piano).

We’ve decided we’d make a little room in our budget for a few, a few wants. Like Mali’s dance lessons & our subscription to hulu, a little spending money each month for both me & Joseph. Some money set aside for Christmas & birthday presents.

I look forward to the day when we no longer have debt, when we can invest in our retirement (because so far, we have nothing saved, not a penny in retirement, which believe me, haunts me every day), when we can take our kids to Disneyland. When we can get an ipad or I can get myself some new clothes.

For now though, since we’re paying off our debt (& trying to do so quickly), most of our spending goes towards debt & needs, with a very small portion for our wants.


What do you think? What are your “needs”?
Are there things that you consider a need that others wouldn’t? 


  1. Crystal B
    on March 14, 2014 at 10:40 am said:

    I totally understand needs being different for each person. My husband and I get asked about our priorities all the time. We don’t spend money on haircuts, fashion, accessories, travel, or clothing. Instead we spend money on technology and our hobbies (books and sewing for me, art and activities for the kiddo, and RC cars for my hubby). These things make us happy.

    Granted, we do have a fairly large amount of disposable income because we both work full time. Could we pay off our debt faster? Yes. Could we do the things we want cheaper? Yes, and quite often we do. But I would never eliminate the money we spend on these things because we have decided they are important to us.

    Good for you for deciding what is important to you, even if it isn’t everyone’s norm!

  2. Alisa
    on March 13, 2014 at 12:04 am said:

    Loved this post. We are also being super strict with our budget to get out of debt, and I do a lot of the same things you do: cloth diapers, buying clothes used or clearance, keeping our older cars (almost paid off!), not going to Disneyland, etc. Sometimes it’s hard and I feel soooo suffocated but then it’s worth it to have something in the bank account instead of biting our nails till the next paycheck posts. Plus we will be able to pay the $2,000 deductible + 20% on top of that in cash for our baby’s birth, which will happen in the next 2-3 weeks. Such a blessing.

  3. Melissa
    on March 11, 2014 at 9:00 pm said:

    Gasoline. That eats up half my budget lately (I do drive 5 days a week to classes which are roughly 45 miles away, one-way), but has been better since I started driving our smaller, more economical vehicle. Bless it’s 1997 soul for hanging in there for me. Still, it’s $30 every 3.5 days, or $170+ for commuting. Blah.
    Some days I miss my one mile commute to work on my moped. Cost me one gallon of gas every 3 weeks! Now that thing was economical.

  4. Laurie
    on March 11, 2014 at 6:13 pm said:

    There are definitely things I think of as needs but others would think of as wants and vice versa. Reading your post reminded me of a friend I knew in grad school in the mid-90s. She had a plan for both her and her husband’s futures, knew where she wanted to be in 5, 10, 15 years, etc. She was the most plan-ful person I’ve ever known. One day she happened to tell me about her budget, and although it was impressive how careful she was about money, nothing she said was surprising considering who and how she was until she got to the part where she told me, “Oh, and I put every month toward my harp fund. A harp costs , and I’ve always wanted to own one.” “Huh? A Harp?!” I wanted to say but didn’t. I think she knew how to play….but maybe not. However, I have no doubt she got her harp one day. It’s likely no one else we knew had or would have ever had a harp fund. Sure, she could have put that money to use some other way, but it made her SO happy.

    • Janae Wise
      on March 12, 2014 at 10:42 am said:

      Ha! I love that–a harp fund. No doubt your friend has achieved her harp playing bliss, as organized & as thorough as she sounds. Awesome.

      I think you bring up a really good point, which is, everyone needs a little splurge as a part of their budget. Something that doesn’t entirely make financial sense but helps to “gladden the heart.”

  5. Kristi
    on March 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm said:

    Everybody has different classifications for needs v. wants. The only thing that bothers me is when people complain about how broke they are and can’t afford this or that, but, “don’t look at the Kirby vacuum in the closet, or the new Jeep in the driveway, the Wii game system, the collectible figurines of some Zombie show, gym membership, piano lessons, and horseback riding lessons. I need those!”
    Then please don’t complain to me about being broke because you belong to the wealthiest group of people on the planet. Be grateful and live within your means. If it’s outside your means and you want it, then save up for it, go without, or get another job.
    One of the reasons I love your blog so much – you never come across as complaining or as “but I deserve it and want it…” You make sense. 🙂

    • Janae Wise
      on March 12, 2014 at 10:35 am said:

      “Kirby vacuum in the closet, or the new Jeep in the driveway, the Wii game system, the collectible figurines of some Zombie show, gym membership, piano lessons, and horseback riding lessons. I need those!”

      Oh boy, & the thing that kills me is that people buy these things new! I think no matter how much money Joseph & I make in the future, I will forever buy (most) things used. You would not believe the sort of things you can get on craigslist. We bought a barely used 10 seater sectional on craigslist for $300.

      Also, about the Kirby vacuum, I’ve often thought how nice it would be to have one. But, so far, after 10 years of using a cheap $100 vacuum (we had to replace just once) which seems to do the job just fine, I don’t think we’d ever buy a Kirby no matter how many microscopic pieces of dirt it can get 🙂