How Do You Determine Need Versus Want?

I just had my first baby shower, at which I was showered with love and presents. Now I’m back home, trying to elbow and squeeze all my new-found baby possessions into my sweet little baby room — which is now looking more like a storage unit. And I have three more showers to go. (Yes, I’m loved and just a little bit spoiled.)

Preparing for a baby can be overwhelming for many reasons, one of which is the tremendous amount of STUFF that seems to accompany it. When you register for gifts you have to make endless choices such as:

  • What kind of car seat should I get?
  • Do I need fleece seatbelt covers with teddy bears on them to accompany the car seat?
  • Do I need a clip-on blanket or a zip-over blanket for the car seat, or can I just throw any old blanket on top?
  • Which toy should I buy to dangle from the handle of the car seat — the giraffe or the bunny?

And that’s just the decisions surrounding car seats. There is a gadget or gizmo for absolutely everything. Sometimes I wish for the “simpler” days like those I see pictured of moms in rural Africa today whose “car seat” is a baby sling. But then I remember indoor plumbing and quickly change my mind.

And yet, there needs to be some balance between a glut of stuff and unnecessary asceticism. I saw this picture today of two boys racing donkeys. It was taken by a coworker in Colombia. What fun the boys are having (even without indoor plumbing):

two boys riding donkeys

I’m not an ascetic; I fully plan to have a car seat with a dangling giraffe toy.

But how do you find the balance between what you want and what you need? Especially when it comes to your kids, whom you and the grandparents and aunts and uncles want to shower with good things?

When it comes to children, how do you decide what is a legitimate expense for the betterment of their lives and what is just more stuff?

How do you help your children find joy in everyday things like a donkey race (or your own local equivalent) rather than in the next game platform?

How do you help your children be thankful for what they have and generous to those who have not?

If you have gained insight with your own family on how to balance what you want with what you need, what is practical with what is wise, and generosity to your own family with generosity to others in need, please share your insights with us!

10 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Gail August 10, 2011

    For me the show Survivor really highlights the differences between needs and wants. As you watch Americans have every thing taken from them and they fight for the basics it puts perspective on our lives. These are people who are used to having much and now they have little. As an avid Survivor fan I have learnt that all we NEED is clean water, enough food to provide energy to do life, somewhere to sleep, people who care and a good attitude. Everything else is bonus.
    I’m very thankful I’ve got lots of bonus.

  2. Grant Norsworthy August 10, 2011

    How do I determine need versus want?

    The first important step for me has been to recognize honestly that I am unable to. How could I possibly think that my perspective of such a thing could ever be balanced and correct? I have been swimming in the toxic soup of ultra consumerism all of my life and drinking heartily. I cannot see my own indoctrination. How could I? I have long ago lost the ability to see the difference between my wants and my needs.

    I say that I believe God can supply my needs but, honestly, I rarely let Him. Maybe I never have.

    “Pure and perfect worship in the sight of God is to care for orphans and widows in their trouble and to remain uncorrupted by the world.” James 1:27

    I am corrupted. How corrupted I cannot be sure and is hardly the most productive question to ask myself. I can never know.

    But recognizing my own inability to make so-called “correct” choices regarding my needs and wants is freeing me and enabling me to inch closer to surrendering that part of my selfish life to God. I am no longer looking for balance that I will never find, but instead trying to get out of the way and allow God to make His choices through me.

    “Be Thou my vision, O’ Lord of my heart.”

    God sees things entirely differently to how I see them. I cannot look at another person and judge whether my balance between wants and needs is any better or worse than theirs. I cannot know whether I am only allowing myself the needs that God sees as healthy or not.

    When I am considering an object that I want ownership of, I cannot decide whether it is a legitimate need or merely a want. But when I am faced with a choice, I can be conscious of who my Lord is, the example He sets and seek His guidance, hopefully allowing God to make His choices through me.

  3. Lorraine August 10, 2011

    Thanks for this post Amber. Thanks for your comment Nathan. Good stuff, and touching on questions we should all be asking ourselves. This has been a recurring and frequent topic on my heart and mind for many years. I love Nathan’s comments about loving not the world, and focusing on what breaks the heart of God – the poor being an element in the breaking.

    Since we know that this life is just temporary (as Nathan points out using 2 Peter 3:10), we should be looking at this life as preparation for eternity – and having an eternal perspective helps me to make better choices. I’m not saying I have figured this all out, but thinking about what matters for eternity – spending on myself, or spending on the Kingdom – makes it easier to battle the flesh which wants what it wants all the time. I like to think of Jesus, who, for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:2), and seek His joy, and my own in Him, by setting aside what my flesh demands, and, keeping in step with the Spirit, choose what Christ in me would choose.

    That being said, I do not see anywhere in Scripture that says it is bad to enjoy the good things of life that the Lord provides, but as usual, the heart is everything. I can glorify the Lord by enjoying a special treat He has given me, and by passing one by for the sake of my brother… “The enire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’…So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Gal. 5:14, 16, 25

  4. Christine August 10, 2011

    Nathan’s answer above is perfect. I have a few practical things to add.

    I am 45 years old and have four children, ages 2, 4, 7, 9. We spoiled them at first, as I was formerly a teacher and wanted them to be properly stimulated.

    We went down to one extremely modest income when the oldest was 3.5 years old, and I continued to spoil them by going to thrift stores and garage sales. If it was a good price, it felt okay to acquire it.

    I have learned much since then and they have recovered from being spoiled, as we’ve dealt with under-employment for 2.5 years (best thing that ever happened to us).

    My advice is to obtain only classic toys and let relatives buy them, as it seems rude to tell relatives not to buy anything for their grandkids. They want to do this. Then, don’t buy any toys yourself and give the money you would have used to the less fortunate.

    Here’s a good list of toys for the first decade:

    board books from thrift stores and garage sales to get you started with books, then later get picture books and chapter books


    Legos (or other connecting toy for fine motor development and imagination)

    Tinkertoys and/or Lincoln Logs

    Playdoh (or make it yourself)

    trains and train set

    playing house things (dishes, dolls, maybe a thrifted play kitchen)

    art supplies (paint, paper, crayons, colored pencils, art books)

    balls, bats, kiddy pool, jump rope, bike

    If you need any big plastic toy, like a big wheel bike or a plastic picnic table, always buy it thrifted. Big plastic stuff is extremely expensive when purchased new.

    Playpens, bouncy seats, etc. will take over your house. Buy a sling and a high chair instead!

    Wonderful post, Amber. Praise God for your wisdom in even writing this post at this point in your parenting journey. You are starting in a good place!

  5. Michael Patterson August 10, 2011

    Well said Nathan. It wasn’t until we went on a Compassion sponsor tour that I ever really gave it much thought, I’m ashamed to say. After we returned from that trip, my wife were a lot more inclined to think about our purchases. We held a garage sale to get sell items we rarely or never used anymore, and used the money towards sponsoring another child. For us, we have decided to become less impulsive. We try not to buy things when they first catch our eye in the store. We are finding that most of the time we really don’t need those things that looked so attractive.

  6. Nathan Cary August 10, 2011

    This blog was obviously the perspective of a woman, soon to be a mother, and also obviously, much younger than I.
    I started out as a poor kid, living in rented quarters. My life has been blessed with much material gain since those days. I’m not rich by American standards of wealth, but I have all I want, and more.

    As I watch my children deal with their children, I am forced to ask the same questions as did the writer of this blog.
    As gifts are heaped upon the “birthday boy/girl”, where is the value? Does this child really appreciate any of it? Will family life be better? Will the child learn new life-skills? Are gifts to children any more than attempts by working parents to buy off their own guilt for being absent?

    The commercial world is constantly bombarding us with dazzling gadgets that we don’t have yet, and for just $19.95 if you call now. And more than that, they’ll DOUBLE the offer.

    What I see here is Americans, and sadly American Christians, falling for the idol of the American Dream. We’ve replaced the all-sufficiency of our great Savior, with a regular paycheck and the stuff it buys. We compare ourselves among ourselves, and try to impress people we don’t know, by buying stuff we don’t need, using money we don’t have. Again, we’ve fallen for the god of materialism.

    While God intends to provide us with every good and perfect gift, we, not God, have decided what is good and perfect.
    When our children go on their first “mission” trip to Mexico, they typically come home with testimonies of guilt for having so much stuff.
    Does God, then, expect us to throw out all of our stuff? Of course not, but He does want us to find our supply in Him. He blesses us according to His will and purpose. His plan to make us conformed to the image of His dear Son. What does THAT mean?

    Both asceticism and decadence are extremes. We don’t need to go to extremes. Somewhere between the extremes we find the provision by our Provider, and enough to share with the less fortunate.
    It’s not a case for stuff. It’s a constant battle with our unsatisfied flesh, continually attempting to fill a God-shaped vacuum with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. 1 Jn 2:16.
    It’s very clear in Scripture that we are to love NOT the world. 1 Jn 2:15.
    Jesus, in Luke 10:27, is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, telling His listeners to love the LORD with all of our being and our neighbors as ourselves. What does THAT mean?

    The bottom line seems to be that we are blessed to bless others and to use God’s blessings to accomplish God’s will in our lives and in our world.
    God’s Word reminds us that the stuff of the world will someday be ‘burned up’. 2 Peter 3:10.
    As Christians, let’s put our attention where God’s attention is focused. May our hearts break with what breaks the heart of God.

    1. Martyn November 12, 2013

      Excellent response Nathan!

  7. Stephanie Green August 10, 2011

    Thanks for sharing this, Amber! I talk often with my own children about the fact that just because we may have the money to spend on something they desire, doesn’t mean that getting more stuff is the way to go- for a number of reasons. I try to share with them about each of the gifts we send our sponsored children (and why) and I always DELIGHT in reading my family the thank you letters that detail how those gifts were spent, usually on clothing, food or livestock. Teaching our own children gratitude for what they have is one of the many challenges of parenting but I hope those letters give my children pause to think about wants vs. needs.

    My kids also keep a “Giving Box” which they like to fill with change and donate to the Compassion fund of their choice so I think that also helps them reflect on where money (found or earned) can do the most good.

    1. Gail August 10, 2011

      I like the idea of the Giving Box Stephanie 🙂

  8. John August 10, 2011

    Last night while reading to my 3 year old about Curious George visiting a toy store, I asked him: “What toys do you see that you would like to have?” He got excited and began pointing out and telling me which ones he would like. We did that together for a few moments before I pointed to his toy box in his room and reminded him that he has a lot of nice toys. Then I led him to say this as we raised our hands: “Lord, thank you for my amazing toys, I don’t have all the toys in the world, but I have more than I need. Some boys and girls don’t have any toys even though you want them to. I don’t feel bad for having nice things, but I do feel grateful.”

    Gratitude is the biggie. As long as we/our kids/anyone doesn’t develop an entitlement attitude, and remains grateful- I think they should enjoy what we have.

    Balance to me, is having pictures of children from around the world that you support financially and pray for daily, on your stainless steel, french door, water and ice dispensing refrigerator (that you’re grateful for).

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