It’s easy to talk about the difference between needs and wants in the abstract, but it’s entirely another to be facing a real expenditure, one that feels important to you, and to try to discern in that moment how badly you need or don’t need this thing. Maybe there’s some parallel universe where everyone is entirely rational and these decisions are clearly delineated, unemotional, black and white, completely binary.
We do not live in that universe.
When we were in the early stages of not just planning for early retirement, but actually learning how to live in a way that would get us there, we often felt conflicted about which expenses to cut, and by how much. It was a push-pull of being all kinds of motivated to save, but also not wanting to feel deprived, or like we’d live a life we wouldn’t enjoy en route to our goal. That’s no way to live. Today is just as important as someday.
Related post: living for today — and tomorrow
Eventually we felt our way through the largest ambiguities and figured out the general contours of our new spending level and the life that went along with it. We formed new habits and took on new mindsets.
But that question of whether and by how much to cut something, or when to forgo it altogether, never went away. It’s something we still deal with — often, in fact!
Is it worth it to take this trip we’d like to go on, which aligns to exactly why we wanted to retire early, but which also costs a fair amount and would force us to trim back everything else this year?
Is this gadget that would make X activity a lot more fun worth it?
How often do we need new skis or bikes, the tools that enable our favorite outdoor activities?
Should we be trying harder to spend less on groceries?
And on and on it goes. Ultimately, looking at expenditures in terms of needs and wants is fairly useless if you’re trying to shape a life that you feel stoked to live every day. Some of the needs are obvious, of course, but most things are wants.
We need some wants to be happy.
I couldn’t write this blog if I didn’t have this computer, an object that is clearly not a need. Sure, I could write at the library, but I’d be sharing our town’s one internet computer with everyone else who needs to use it, and I’d be lucky to get out a post a month. I could write like writers in the past did — with a typewriter, or with pen and paper — but are those things needs? Mark would be a miserable lump if he couldn’t mountain bike or ski, activities that require a whole bunch of expensive tools and accessories. He could only hike on foot, but even that would be limited, because hiking boots are not essential needs either.
We could get into a whole debate about whether religious ascetics who forgo all worldly possessions are truly happy, and of course I don’t actually know. Let’s assume they are. If your vision for early retirement is to own nothing and to beg for alms so you can eat, then maybe you’re the rare creature who can be happy with only the true essentials. But for all the rest of us, talking about needs and wants is putting the focus in the wrong place. We do not need early retirement or financial independence. Nearly every person in the history of the world has spent most of their life working. Early retirement is 100 percent a want, and so we shouldn’t feel ashamed of spending our time and money in ways that are purely wants and not needs, if those wants make us happier. But on a more practical level, focusing on a false binary of needs and wants means we get no help in making the tough choices of what spending to trim back, what spending to chop and what spending to eliminate altogether.
Instead of labeling a possible expenditure a need or want, or good or bad, or really any label on any binary scale, it’s so much more helpful to use as your guide the feelings of your future self.
This isn’t just about the insufficiency of need vs. want as a guiding life and financial philosophy, though I’ve talked a lot about that today. It’s really about any this-or-that choice, or one that presumes we are capable of making perfectly rational decisions in the present all the time. (We’re not, and if we think we are, we’re lying to ourselves.)
So instead of getting hung up on any of that, let’s put someone in charge of making decisions — whether during the accumulation phase or post-retirement — who has a bit more perspective: future you.
Future you knows some things
Future you is incredibly wise, because future you knows all your secrets. Future you knows when present you tried to convince yourself that the impulse buy wasn’t an impulse buy, or justified spending more than necessary on something fleeting. But most of all, future you knows if the expenditure current you is considering ultimately made you any happier.
And even though present you can’t see the future, present you can get pretty great at asking, “Hey future me, was buying this X or paying Y for some experience a good decision?” And future you doesn’t lie in answering. Future you can telegraph from the future whether that experience was truly one you remembered forever, or if it’s something completely forgettable and therefore not worth it. And future you can tell you whether that thing you want to buy was ultimately just another form of lifestyle inflation.
The trick is learning to ask the question, and being willing to listen.
Future you sees through fads
Most of us have some category of thing we’re perennially tempted by. My weakness, because I am (not so?) secretly an old fuddy duddy at heart, is fountain pens and things to put them in. No matter how practiced I get at not spending capriciously, I will never stop wanting to pet the pretty pens and cases, wondering how they feel gliding across the page, ink flowing through them. I already have too many, but I’m positive I have not bought my last fountain pen. And every once in a while, some newfangled pen comes out and I get all itchy thinking about how I clearly need this thing. Current me really believes it, too. But future me is the one with perspective, the one who can say, “Oh, that was just some trendy thing that died off quickly. You stuck with the classics,” or “You thought that case was pretty, but you were embarrassed when people saw it, so you never used it.” And suddenly, I can see that temptation for what it is: some hedonic treadmill in action. Instead of buying the pen or the case, I can appreciate them and know that someone else will buy them, and later regret it — or not!
Future you knows all this stuff, too, as it applies to your life. Future you knows if something you’re tempted by now will stand the test of time, or whether it will end up in the back of your closet or bottom of your drawer, hiding out until its day of declutter reckoning.
Future you remembers the important stuff
Future you carries around all the cherished memories you’re making now and will make in the future, and knows which ones mean the most. Future you can send back some of that intel to help guide you as you decide whether you want to pay to visit that incredible place for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or instead spend the money on something mundane that will likely fade in your mind until it’s gone altogether.
Future you knows when you were too cheap
Future you isn’t just good for telling you when not to spend money. Future you also carries around all the regrets from the things you didn’t do, the things current you didn’t deem worthwhile. The friends’ destination wedding you didn’t attend because you were eagerly saving money, and years later still wish you had. The time you didn’t give when a relative was raising money for an important cause because you’d rather invest it instead. The time you took advantage of friends’ hospitality while visiting them and didn’t offer to pay for any activities or take them out to eat because you didn’t want to spend money and figured they could afford it. The habits you fell into of not seeking regular health care, or not getting doctor-recommended tests, because of the cost involved. The years you denied yourself some small pleasure in the name of saving for “the future.” Future you carries around all those twinges of regret and guilt, the resentment of having been denied those little things that didn’t feel worth it but ultimately would have been.
Start asking future you for advice
Fortunately, you can spare future you those twinges by listening to future you now, asking questions like:
Am I going to wish I hadn’t cheaped out on this and missed the experience?
Am I going to look back and feel foolish for spending money on something that was obsolete in the blink of an eye?
Am I going to see when I look back on this purchase that I was just making it to impress someone else?
Am I going to shake my head, knowing the skis I already had were perfectly fine and I could have waited another year or two to replace them? Or am I going to wish I could go back and punch myself for suffering in painful ski boots for years instead of just sucking it up and buying new ones?
Am I going to wish I’d prioritized self-care, including health care, over purchasing things?
If you can train yourself to ask the questions, and to listen sincerely to the answers, you’ll find that future you is thrilled to share wisdom.
What does your future you tell you?
Do you consult future you when making spending and saving decisions? Do you have any memorable times when future you has helped you change course for the better? Any good questions to share that are worth posing to future you? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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Categories: we've learned