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
Good stuff. I wish ‘future me’ were on call all the time and 100% accurate. Unfortunately he seems to go away for long stretches of time.
And I love that line – “we need some wants to be happy”. So true. The key for financial independence is keeping the wants within and more importantly, below, your financial means.
Ha. True. None of us have any perfect aspects of ourselves, but future us at least has a little broader perspective than current us. ;-)
future me already is crushed by something like a new 100/mo phone plan last year when mrs. me already had a pretty modern device. however, we just had a computer crap out on top of enormous home repairs that are likely that once in our lifetime. we’ll invest a little less this year, replace the computer (a lot of art goes through that thing) and take a couple of small trips this fall. all that saving will still be there when we’re done. oh, and never cheap out when somebody is putting you up. there are rules in life and that is one.
Don’t let future you get hung up on past decisions you can’t change. Keep future you focused on things within your locus of control now! ;-)
This is a really great approach .I’m realizing I already do this with some things (“Will I regret not going on a discount vacation with my friends?”) but not others (“Should I order wine at this dinner just because others are? Will I look at my budget angrily tomorrow thinking about how that money could have been better spent?”)
I also need to change my mindset about Future Me in general because I think of her as separate from me, as someone that will have to deal with a problem I put off now (“I don’t feel like doing the dishes… Meh!… That’s Future Me’s problem now!”) It’s kind of an adversarial relationship :) . I need to change that and ask her for advice on more than just the big things.
I love your last thought! We should find ways to love, care and nurture our future selves.
Amen to that! :-)
Thanks! And that’s so true — in Maggie from Northern Expenditure’s words: “future you is still you!” ;-) Good to recognize that you often treat her as separate. I think many of us do!
Good stuff as always
As I have often said here my idea of FIRE is not retiring only to spend your remaining days locked in the daily self discussion of how you spend every dollar, worried that hundreds or thousands of dollars spent occasionally beyond the basic needs on something fun and enjoyable would ALTER your future long term financial outcome. If that is the case then I do not believe someone in that position is truly financially independent. They are simply free of working for their basic needs.
I do believe that the path to FIRE should create positive habits that automatically help you check yourself and that to begin with your FIRE plan included the ability to add extra things once you FIRE that make the retirement part of FIRE more rewarding. We FIRE”d at 52 instead of 47 because we simply didn’t want to live each day questioning should we or shouldn’t we spend when it came to things that fit our values and lifestyle beyond our basic needs. For us that 5 years will have changed everything about how we are able to spend in retirement so we are not worrying that the extra trip this year will mean we take less trips next year (or 10 years from now)
For Marks retirement lifestyle he NEEDS a mountain bike, ski’s, hiking boots, and all the gear to fulfill his retirement promise to himself. Having them should never be a question. New vs used, deluxe vs basic, when to replace – all value decisions, but to me Marks FIRE plan should have that baked in so that he enjoys each day free of having to feel insecure about whether having them creates a long term financial issue.
Thanks for sharing.
I so agree on those lifestyle purchases. While they may not be necessities of life, they are still needs in terms of the life we aimed for. Then it’s just figuring out the details on how much to spend, when to spend it, etc.
This is a timely post because I’m currently deciding whether to go to a destination wedding or pay down my student loans faster! You’re so right, we do need some wants to be happy.
I missed a domestic destination wedding (held on the opposite side of the country from where I live) for an extended family member (my oldest brother’s oldest daughter) back in the summer of 2009 due to a significant health issue (I didn’t have the stamina or energy to travel cross country at that time). Looking back over the past decade of my life, missing that event has been my biggest regret.
Regarding paying down your student loan faster versus attending the destination wedding, here are some things to think about:
1. How close are you to the people getting married?
2. Have you known them a long time, or are they more recent friends?
3. Are a lot of people from your family or close friends also attending?
4. Is the destination a place you never considered visiting on your own?
5. How many student loan payments are equivalent to the cost of the trip? If you are only talking a few months, maybe you should go to that destination wedding. If it’s more along the lines of a few years, well, maybe you need to skip that trip regardless who is getting married, how many people you know are going, and the bucket list location where it’s being held.
6. How would Suzy Orman answer “Can I afford it?” in your situation? LOL
7. Finally, what will you regret the most: not going? or having to make all those more months of student loan payments because you spent that money on travel?
Awesome tips, Kathy! I’m going to do some more thinking about it and this is a fantastic framework to do that. Thank you.
Thanks so much for sharing this personal memory, Kathy! Such a great reminder to put people ahead of money, because you never get those moments back. Though I hope you don’t beat yourself up about it given that you had a significant health challenge as your barrier and weren’t just being cheap.
Curious to know what you decide! Both are totally good choices, but I bet future you leans one way or the other.
Great information as always. This is a very insightful way to make choices as FIRE is as much about the journey as the destination. Now I have to figure out how to impart this wisdom on my kids.
Thanks, Nick! :-) I think future you is an abstract concept for young kids, but it’s so intuitive that I bet they’ll get it.
I’ve been living in “future me” so much so, that I struggle to live today. Thanks for bringing me back down to earth.
What a great realization! It’s important to service both current you and future you. The ideal choices are the ones that you both feel good about. :-)
I’m about to join a gym for the first time ever, because I realized that the one form of exercise I always enjoy, look forward to and don’t want to put off is swimming. I’ve been doing the “why pay for a gym when I can just run or hike or do yoga at home” thing for years. And while those things are enjoyable too, they’re not fun for me the way swimming is, and I frequently put them off. Fewer barriers=more exercise. So I’m planning to increase my annual spending (and trying not to feel guilty about it, even though I know health-related spending is smart) rather than maintain because future me will appreciate being healthy.
Good for you for investing in your favorite form of exercise! :::high five::: Future you absolutely WILL appreciate being healthy, and will appreciate that you listened to which activities you most enjoy. Plus swimming = fewer likely injuries than with running. Another reason future you will be happy. ;-)
A wise perspective! I’d love to hear about how you applied this (and other approaches) when searching for your current home–not the town, but the particular house. House hunting is complex and rife with “need or want, overspending or cheaping out?” questioning, and the gift of FIRE flexibility seems to make it more challenging in some ways.
Great question! And here’s a post that answers your exact question. :-) https://ournextlife.com/2016/01/25/minimizing-your-housing-costs-dont-let-the-banks-set-your-budget/ We were definitely tempted by a bigger, nicer house, but didn’t give into that urge.
Very timely post for our situation. Hubby and I were set to retire modestly, and were ready to pay a LOT for health insurance. But with the current instability in the individual health insurance market and my preexisting self, I continue to work full time to get those benefits while he is retired early. Reaching our FIRE goal, and then not being able to actually do it has felt like being dropped in the middle of the ocean, knowing full well how to how to swim for shore, but having to just treat water instead. I didn’t want or need the income from my current job, just the assurance that we would have health insurance. After a few trips to our would be retirement city, we made a “future self” decision, and have our dream southwestern house under contract there. We won’t move there full time as long as my very good and flexible job is elsewhere, but with the income I am spinning off that we didn’t plan to have, we can more than afford it. We will be able to spend on average one week a month there (I can work remotely some of the time), and offer it on VRBO/Airbnb the other weeks. I feel alive again to be working towards something I actually want, rather than stagnating. Given that I have been dx with a complication of my Type 1 diabetes that can be a leading cause of blindness, we are not waiting for that magical day when the health insurance cards fall into place to enjoy at least some of our dreams. So I will have mountain views (a livelong dream) and spectacular sunsets….some of the time. Not that we didn’t do the spreadsheets and spin and analyze, but this is as much of a heart decision as we have ever made, and I am feeling zero regrets.
Wow, Carol. Thanks for sharing that! Of course it crushes me that you’re having to continue to work despite not needing the money, solely because of our country’s ridiculous health care uncertainty. >:-( But given the circumstances, I think you’re super smart to make this choice, and I’m glad you’ve listened to your heart! And your dream house sounds wonderful! So glad you get to enjoy that at least some of the time if not full-time.
I’m going to back away from the fountain pens now. I already have an obsessive desire to write with ALL THE PRETTY PENS.
This reminded me that I DO still regret not going to a friend’s destination wedding ten years ago. But I truly couldn’t afford it without racking up debt so I don’t think there was a way for that situation not to end up with regrets. So that gives me a little perspective on tempering what Future Me is going to think. Mostly Future Me is wiser but sometimes Future Me has blinkers and forgets the context of decisions made at the time.
Most of the time, though, thinking long term is really the right way to go. It keeps me from picking up 3 (or uh, 10) of that thing I like because I know NOW that cheap $3 polyester shirts are actually not worth even the $3 and I’ll never wear them again even if I do get them in delicious fruity pastels that remind me of juicy peaches and perfect island sea water.
The pens are a PROBLEM. ;-) Great point about future you and forgetting the context, so good to remember that stuff! And yeah, back away from the disposable shirts, too! Haha.
Being nice to current me is something that future me values. Thankfully, future me also wants me to be nice to old me. Doing things for the memories is 100% valid. And having some nice things is lovely. “Because I wanted to” is a good enough reason, as long as it is not the only reason ever pulled out and is not allowed to bankrupt me entirely.
Future you has her priorities in order! ;-)
I’ll keep her ;)
Good move. :-)
Relating to “Future you” is another way of saying “Believe in your vision” right? If you can see it in your mind you can hold it in your hand!
Yes and no. Sometimes it’s just a question of trying to gain a bigger perspective, whether or not you have the vision. But they might very well align. ;-)
I think consulting Future You is a great mindset shift to help bring the future into now, especially if you’re someone who tends to prioritize planning for the long-term over living more spontaneously or in the now. To the list of questions, I would also add, “Is this [purchase] something I can only make now? If I wait 1 day, 30 days, next year [or whatever the relevant time period is where this type of purchase may come up again], will the opportunity be gone? Will my decision likely change?”
Great addition! Seeing where you can put off a purchase often helps give future you a louder voice.
Super late to the party, but I thought this was interesting, considering there is research that shows we humans are very bad at estimating what will make future us happy ;) Check out Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.
We can however rely on the wisdom of people who have faced similar choices and see how they feel about the decisions they made – for example Veronica should definetely learn from Kathy’s experience and go to that wedding. :)
You’re never late to the party! :-) I definitely appreciate Dan Gilbert’s work, but I think we’re talking about slightly different things: he’s talking about long-term happiness, and I’m talking about long-term good money decisions. I’d argue they’re different, and that thinking about future you at least helps move you away from a place of impulse buys and treat yo’self. ;-) And +1 all the way to learning from others! Though that’s way easier said than done. Most of us need to make the mistake ourselves to learn from it.