The Buyerarchy of needs

After writing Tuesday’s post and really delving into how we save money around here I got to mulling over this grand and somewhat obscure idea of needs. It’s really easy for me to preach frugal mantras like “buy only what you need” or “don’t spend on things you don’t need” or “figure out how to make the distinction between wants and needs”  when in reality following through with this is actually really really really hard to do. What happens when we lose sight of our true needs? Well, Consumerist culture has desensitized us to our true needs and so, the lines between needs and wants seem to be permanently blurred for most of us. Consumerism has done such a great job of severing our relationship with our true needs that more often than not we’re able to convince ourselves that just about any “want” is in fact a real need on some level. Buy more, more, more is basically the way most people live – and guess what? we used to be those people!

How many times have you been in a shop and picked up something that peaks your interest only to proceeded to convince yourself to buy it by thumbing off at least 20 reasons why you absolutely need to purchase it? I’ve done it many, many, many a time myself. The things is, we’ve been conditioned to overlook what our true needs are and buy things because on some emotional level they satisfy something we are looking for in that very moment. I often refer to this as a “want cycle”. I’ve had many many “want cycles” in my lifetime. Pre frugal living I’d have one just about every other month. One time, I remember running to Best Buy because I had to have an Eye-Fi card. The idea was that I took so many photos and uploading them was such a chore and with an Eye-Fi card the photos would miraculously upload themselves whenever in range of the computer. Sure, the Eye-Fi card is pretty cool. It’s efficient, it’s handy and it’s pretty darn useful but, did I truly need it? Absolutely not. Sadly, that Eye-Fi card died a lonely death in a drawer in my office desk only a few short months after buying it. The gratification of fulfilling that “want cycle” sort of fizzled out.

Consumerist culture is super efficient at manipulating us to believe that new cars, new homes, new clothes, new gadgets and just about anything and everything that one could potentially purchase falls into the realm of true needs. We’ve been sensitized to this idea that we need to moisturize our faces with expensive creams, we need to dine on expensive dishes and we need to toast our bottoms while we drive.

In Tuesday’s post I talked a lot about how we save money. If you have a read through that post or one of the other one’s I’ve written about how we manage money in our frugal household you’ll soon come to the conclusion that we basically live by the Buyerarchy of needs.

If you’re interested in reading some of my other posts about how we live frugally these are a great place to start:

The buyerarchy of needs

The Buyerarchy of needs was created by Sarah Lazarovic who used the info graphic that she created above as a reminder to explore other options before jumping in and buying anything. Her thought process, much like my own revolves around getting creative, borrowing, bartering, buying used, reinventing and ultimately buying if these options get exhausted before accomplishing whatever consumerist goal you had set out for yourself.

In having adhered to the basic tenants of the Buyerarchy of needs for nearly 8 years now I can tell you that you can in fact satisfy most of your basic “true needs” without ever having to climb up to the very top of that pyramid. The options to obtain what you need is very much possible with a little creativity or through borrowing or bartering. I’d even go out on a limb to say that if one were to be patient enough they could potentially borrow or barter for every thing they need including  primary needs like food and shelter. Having said that, there’s absolutely market for bartering for even the most basic of needs but given the consumerist culture we live in it would likely be rather difficult to barter for a home or for food on a consistent basis. It’s entirely possible but I imagine rather difficult since bartering has unfortunately not become mainstream form of exchange just yet.

Needs versus wants

So here is where the topic gets a little complicated. How do we differentiate between primary (basic needs) and secondary needs and set them completely from wants.

For everyone primary needs involve things like food and shelter.

For nearly everyone primary needs involve food, shelter and safety.

For a lot of people primary needs are extended to include food, shelter, safety and the secondary need of transportation.

For most people primary needs have become focused on food, shelter, safety, transportation and excess. So, the lines are blurred you see?

Now, I’m not accusing you of being a compulsive shopper or binge purchaser. Instead, I’m pointing out that most of us (myself included until circa 2009) now have the tendency to potentially lump luxuries like clothing, gadgets, electronics, high-end vehicles and travel into our most basic of needs.

How many times have you said “I absolutely need a vacation right now!”? Or, I absolutely have to have a car with A/C and power windows”? These types of wants have now been transformed into basic needs for a large proportion of people.

The ugly truth is that consumerist culture has convinced us through the more, more, more attitude that you need more clothes (more options make life easier night?), we need more gadgets (you must have a juicer, sodastream and VitaMix because they make life more convenient) and we must drive a brand new car with leather interior and heated seats because we’re entitled to them and need them to secure a certain level of happiness.

Consumer culture sells us a dream right? They sell us a narrative of success that most people fall for and buy into which creates a debt spiral that leaves people facing financial distress because they are spending far more than they are making. How many times have you told yourself “I’ll buy now and pay later, no problem” because whatever consumer good you were pining over was so important to have that you were willing to in-debt yourself to get it? This right here is where the problem lies – our basic needs have now branched out to include things that are in fact wants and by consequence the majority of us have indebted ourselves because of this consumerist chaos.

Knowing the difference

Knowing the difference isn’t easy and naturally we’ll all buy something we want instead of need from time to time. If however, we can consciously disassociate our needs from our wants we’re making positive steps in breaking down the dream created by the consumerist narrative. Wanting stuff is okay – it’s when we start to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into debt that we start facing the problem of our wants overthrowing the balance of spending within your means and saving for a rainy day. If you’re constantly adding to your debt spiral it becomes very very difficult to maintain your quality of life because your hard earned cash isn’t actively working for you since your throwing it at your debt pay down.

Knowing the difference and consciously making choices not to create and fall victim to a want cycle is critical. But, how? That’s the hard part right. Mer and I were in a position where we had no choice. We were overspending and needed to really get a grip on our finances so we decided to go at paying down our consumer debt by becoming extremely frugal. Not only did it work (we kicked that 21k in the butt) but we found peace and happiness along the journey. How did we figure out if something we wanted to purchase was a want or need? We do one simple thing.

We never make impulse purchases. If there is something we feel we needed we mull it over for weeks or even months. Our reasoning is that if the item in question still appears necessary or useful to us 2 months down the road then we’ll buy it. This cooling off period allows for a real analysis of the consumer good and whether it’s purely a want or more of a need.

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What do you classify as needs?

What is a recent want that you purchased for yourself?



  1. Great post, and oh, so true! The cycle of need that consumerism has feed us has led to greed and to increased waste and pollution. The need becomes a want that becomes a waste that becomes pollution. So much that was thought to be a need is discarded and becomes pollution for all. It is sad and will be hard to undo. Informing people how to do it is a great start! Thank you!

    1. Absolutely! There’s very little acknowledgement that giving in to these wants all the time leads to excess and the overflow of our landfills.

  2. I love your post. I get so frustrated when something breaks down and it always costs more to get it repaired than to replace it, so sad for the waste and landfills.

  3. I’ve improved drastically over the years but I slip up every so often and bought some new clothes recently. To be fair, a couple of those pieces I’d been marinating on for a few months and I could now afford it. This week I bought a floor fan (necessity) and a large order of perfumes, half of which are to replace my favourites I’ve used up and some new ones. Do I need them? Well, I feel like the answer is yes. I adore perfume and can’t not have any. In any case I’m on a lipstick ban this year and the ones I want to buy are going to be on my birthday wishlist so technically I wouldn’t have bought them myself. Really trying to find ways to not be so consumerist, I do really well for months and then fail for an entire month. It’s a work in progress

    1. These want cycles in my experience are often triggered by something. I think the fact you are conscious of it and acknowledge you do it is great great progress. Having said that you don’t need to deprive yourself ALL the time. Feeding our wants from time to time isn’t a bad thing assuming we can afford to do so.

  4. This is so true! For me, I’ve found the distinction even harder since having a baby, since I obviously want to give him the best. I have to stop and really think before buying him something because I don’t want him to grow up with way too much crap / stuff. It helps to see the joy ge gets from playing with a kitchen ladle 🙂

    1. Yup. Having a baby really challenges are desire to fulfill our wants. I think in some respect we think that we have to give them everything so we buy buy buy.

  5. Great post. I generally don’t go to a store unless there is something I need. Sure, there are things that I think would be nice. For anything that isn’t precisely what I came in for, I walk around and think about it…or go home, really think and talk to a third party who knows my family. We do a lot of “making do” and swapping plus thrift store shopping. Just our philosophy.

    Love your post. A lot of wisdom and inspiration there.

  6. I love this and totally agree. When I finally started to figure out my real needs and separated them from my wants my budget finally started working. Ironically enough, I’m a lot happier now without all of the random stuff cluttering up my home.

  7. Love the graphic you included in this. These are needed words of wisdom. Wanting to simplify in our home, and it started with TOYS. It was embarrassing how many we had between our four kiddos.

    1. Toys are the WORST!!! So many toys. We try to keep toy clutter under control in our house but if I’m being perfectly honest it’s a little out of control at this very moment. This is something I need to tackle this coming week.

  8. This is a great post and I love Sarah Lazarovic’s infographic. I consider myself a frugal person in that I don’t have spending habits some others have that I consider excessive – dining out constantly, getting hair and nails done, massages, housekeeper, more car than we need, more house than we need, etc. But I definitely fall into the trap of buying things I want, when I want them. I find the best price I can, I thrift a lot, but I don’t have that “Do I really NEED this?” conversation with myself enough. I talk myself into things by thinking “You work hard and you’re not living hand to mouth, you’ve earned it” or, worse, “Some people buy new shoes every month and spend $300 a pair, you can treat yourself to this $30 pair.” So I let money trickle out in this way, and it makes me crazy to know I’m doing it!

    1. I think most people are conditioned to give in to those wants from time to time. I think the second we become more conscious of it we’re making strides in the right direction.

  9. Hi Jenny,

    I’ve been reading most of your posts about frugal living. I love how you make it sound sensible and doable in this world and age of splurging. I’ve been married for three years and have a toddler. Life is tough, neither of us have a stable job. We are new immigrants to Canada. We came into marriage with a huge debt, and no matter how much our families invest in a bailout, we just don’t get bailed out. Debt keeps climbing, we don’t have a lot of savings either. The last three years have been full of hard knocks. I’ve started to really think about needs and wants. Now I feel very disenchanted with this whole consumerist deal bullcrap. I really think your blog is a rebellion against this tendency. Good job!

    1. Welcome Shenaz. I was just over at your blog having a read and I just want to tell you that you are a brave brave woman. I hope you like it here and have settled in well. <3

  10. Great post and so true. It really made me think about my mom, who is drowning in debt, despite her and my dad almost hitting the 100k mark each year. I, on the other hand, make about 1/5 of what they make and manage to be much happier and more relaxed. I’m trying to move out of state later this year and my mom’s biggest concern is about how I won’t have the money to live a certain level of lifestyle. It drives me crazy, because for one, my lifestyle here is far from extravagant, and secondly, I don’t want an extravagant lifestyle! I would rather be able to have more time for experiences than have to work so hard just to pay the bills. Unfortunately I’m in the process of paying off massive student loans, but living a frugal lifestyle is helping me get those things paid off so in the near future I won’t be so tied down. People are truly led to live in fear that if they don’t have certain things that their life is meaningless. I refuse to let someone else’s standards dictate my life. As long as I can be comfortable in my life, that’s all I need, and it doesn’t take much!

  11. We are currently fulltiming in an RV and my two girls, ages 9 and 7, are having a bit of a time understanding true needs over wants when it comes to buying things since now we have such limited space to put items. We are talking a lot of what we truly “need” over our wants and desires. I won’t lie, many times it’s hard for me as well!

    1. This is awesome!!! Thank you so much for sharing.

      Knowing the difference (although I think most us do actually know) and not acting on it is really hard. We’re so programmed to get what we want that it’s hard to just stop doing that ya know?

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