What is the difference between a need and a want?

Imagine you’re walking down a busy street, and the smell of freshly fried chips wafts through the air. You find yourself standing outside a chip shop. The thought of fresh, hot chips is now stuck in your head and you think, “I want that”, but there’s a catch.

As you approach the chip shop, you need to decide whether you’re genuinely hungry and in need of food or if it’s more of a “nice to have” craving because chips are so tasty.

This scenario shows the distinction between wanting to buy something and needing to buy something.

Learning to distinguish between wanting to buy something and needing to buy something can help you make smarter financial decisions and avoid impulse purchases. In this article, we’ll help you figure it out the difference by asking yourself three key questions.

Three top tips. Ask yourself...

Why do I want this?

The first step in seeing the different between a want and a need is to identify the purpose of the item you're about to buy. Ask yourself: “Why do I want this?” If the answer is tied to a necessity, like food or basic clothing, then it's likely a need. On the other hand, if the answer is something like “because it looks cool” or “I think it would be fun to have,” then it's more likely a want - it's not essential.

For example, if you’re buying food to feed yourself or your family, that’s a clear need. However, if you’re scrolling through the latest designer sneakers when you already have several pairs of perfectly good shoes, that’s a want.

To help answer ‘Why do I want this?’ you can ask yourself questions like: 

  • What need will it fulfil? 
  • What will be the impact if I don’t buy it? 
  • If I buy this, what other important things won’t I be able to afford?

Will it add long-term value to my life?

When deciding whether to make a purchase, think about the long-term value of the item. Needs often provide lasting benefits, while wants may offer only temporary satisfaction. Consider how the item will impact your life not just today, but in the weeks, months or even years to come.

For instance, if you’re thinking about buying a quality laptop for work or university, that’s likely a need because it can benefit your work and help you achieve your goals over a long period of time. However, if you’re eyeing up a high-end computer with a powerful graphics card for gaming, that’s more likely a want. 

Ask yourself questions like: 

  • Will this item still be useful or enjoyable to me in the future? 
  • Does it align with my long-term goals and values? 
  • Can I find a more affordable alternative that fulfils the same purpose?

By assessing the long-term value, you can make more informed decisions and ensure that your purchases contribute positively to your life beyond the initial excitement of buying it.

Can it wait?

Consider the timing of your purchase. Needs are often related to timing and urgency, while wants can typically wait. Assess whether the item you're thinking of buying is something you need right now or if it's something that can be put off until later, or until you can afford it.

For instance, if your fridge breaks and you need it to store fresh food, replacing it becomes a necessity – a need. On the other hand, if you’ve been looking at new gaming consoles but your current one still works fine, you might want to hold off on the purchase until it makes more sense financially. 

Here are a few questions to help you gauge the timing: 

  • Is there an immediate and urgent reason to buy this item? 
  • Can I delay buying this without it really affecting me? 
  • Will waiting allow me to save up for the item or find a better deal? 

By evaluating the timing of your purchases, you can better distinguish between wants and needs and make decisions that align with your current situation and priorities. This can help you avoid impulsive spending and ensure that your purchases are well-timed and financially responsible.


Understanding the difference between wanting to buy something and needing to buy something is a crucial skill that can help you manage your money wisely. By identifying the purpose, considering the long-term impact, and prioritising timing, you can make informed decisions when it comes to spending your money.

Remember, it’s okay to treat yourself occasionally, but prioritising your needs and saving for your future should always be your top priorities. Happy shopping!

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