Money Moment: Needs vs. Wants

Dr. Jennifer Hunter

By Dr. Jennifer Hunter

Welcome back to Money Moment, episode number 10 with your host, Dr. Jennifer Hunter. Today’s topic is talking with your children about the difference between wants and needs.

If you have a child and a television then you have likely heard then cry, “But I really need …” and insert whatever the advertised item might be. Children often do not recognize how media advertising influences their everyday choices. Discussing the difference between wants and needs with your child is especially important during the teen years when self identity often hinges on having the latest greatest and most expensive new fad. It’s a tricky but important conversation, and it’s never too early to start talking to your kiddos about distinguishing between their wants and needs.

Not just for the kids 

In the work that I do, I often talk about wants and needs with individuals of all ages. When out shopping with my kids, I often hear a cry of “I need that,” but it’s truly a want. However, I also work with college students and often spend an entire class lecturing on the difference between wants and needs. I have found that college students often like to justify wants by saying that they are needs. This is especially true when it comes to college housing. Additionally, as I travel presenting different types of financial education programs, I often find myself talking about the difference between wants and needs when visiting with folks about how to get their financial priorities and how to set a realistic budget for their household. It is definitely a tricky topic.

Distinguishing between wants and needs

To help your teen or older child distinguish between a want and need, have your child make two lists: one of personal needs and the other of personal wants. Then, have them prioritize the lists and discuss how their needs and wants are currently being met and will be met in the future. Ask them who pays the bills for the needs. And what about the wants? Help your teen understand the difference between the “have-to haves” like basic food and clothing and the “want-to haves” like dinner at a nice restaurant or name brand designer clothes or shoes.

The influence of the media

Today’s youth receive daily messages from family members, teachers, friends media and pop culture that affect the way they think and feel about themselves which in turn affects the choices that they make. My son is big into football, and has been from the time he was 18 months old. When he went to kindergarten, he came home during the fall of the year asking for name brand athletic clothing. I assumed this was the peer pressure of kindergarten and had a conversation with him about wants versus needs. When it came to the fall of first grade year, he began asking for a competitor’s name brand of clothing. Another conversation about wants and needs ensued. It wasn’t until one Saturday afternoon watching college football that I realized my son’s wants had nothing to do with the peer pressure of other kiddos at kindergarten and first grade. Only after he commented on the fact that his team had switched from Brand A to Brand B did it become clear: as the team’s logos had switched brands, he also wanted to switch brands. It was then that I learned just how powerful media messages are to our youth.

Being critical consumers of media messages

Helping children recognize the difference between positive and negative messages is very important. Negative messages communicate the need to look, act, or own something to be accepted. Remind your child that material things do not define a person. Character is what counts. Because American youth today spend more time using media than they do anything else, many advertising companies use different forms of media to specifically target older children and teens. Youth consumers have the influence to sway the buying decisions of their family and companies hope to develop brand loyalty from teen consumers that will carry over into adulthood. It is important to start this discussion at an early age. Curbing the “I wants” is hard in a society driven by commerce. Teach your children to make informed choices and be critical consumers of the advertising messages sent their way.

Count blessings

The next time your child just has to have that new video game, smartphone or pair shoes, challenge them to make a list of everything that they already have for which they are thankful. Sometimes the quickest way to help your child or teen recognize their blessings is to open their eyes to others that are less fortunate. Consider spending one day a month volunteering with your teen or older child at a soup kitchen, children’s home or community mission. Learning to give back at an early age teaches compassion, appreciation and humility that can last a lifetime.

Spring clean all year

As your child’s birthday or major holiday approaches this year, to make room for new gifts, challenge your child to sort through his or her old toys and games. Have a yard sale, donate things to charity or pass them along to a younger sibling or friend. Having too much stuff can reduce your child’s capacity to appreciate what they have. Also spring clean all year long. At least once a season, have your son or daughter clean out his or her closet. Sort items into two piles: one to keep and one to give away. If you do not have someone that could use the hand me downs, consider donating them to charity. Make sure your child goes with you to make the donation. Use discussions about needs and wants to teach your child to pay it forward.

Thank you for listening today. Join us for our next episode where we’re going to talk shopping your local farmer’s market on a budget.

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