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How To Improve Your Spending & Savings Habits: 9 Questions to Ask

How To Improve Your Spending & Savings Habits: 9 Questions to Ask
Tracy Stine Mar 29, 2019
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You may have read throughout the different Frugal for Less articles and heard personal finance gurus mentioning separating your needs from your wants when budgeting.

The simple difference is that “needs” are the things you must do to live, and “wants” are the things you can do without. You have cut out some unnecessary wants from your budget, but you want to cut more – how do you really determine the difference?

First, let’s go back to our high school or college lecture on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Abraham Maslow created a classification system that listed the universal needs of society as its base and then proceeding to more acquired emotions. Here’s it’s simple form:

  1. Physiological needs – Food, water, warmth, rest
  2. Safety needs – Security and safety
  3. Belongingness & Love needs – Relationships, friends, intimacy
  4. Esteem needs – Prestige and feelings of accomplishment
  5. Self-Actualization – Achieving one’s full potential

The first 2 are basic needs of survival, the next 2 are psychological needs, and the last one is a self-fulfillment need.

Read on and I’ll show you how you can apply this chart to determine the importance of everything in your life and give you 9 questions to ask yourself what is a necessary “need” and what is something you “want”.

Physiological needs

These are the things you need in order to live – food, water, warmth and rest.

Some people have tried excusing their daily Venti-sized $4.75 Starbucks coffee as “food”. No, it’s not.

Here are questions to ask when addressing your physiological needs:

1. Is it necessary for my household?

Ask yourself questions about your day-to-day needs and your bills.

  • Am I struggling to meet payments?
  • Do I need all these cable channels and subscriptions?
  • Does my car fit my lifestyle?

Some answers would be:

  • Having a brand new $35,000 car and struggling with the $630 monthly payment is a want. Having a 2010 car with a $300 monthly payment (or paid off in full) is a need.
  • Having your thermostat set at 75 every day is a want. Programming it to be lower in the winter and higher in the summer at night and while you’re away is an optimal need.
  • Having 300+ channels on your cable package is a want. Going without, or cutting the cable cord and opting for streaming services is a better optional

You get the idea and now can go through your list of expenses and start labeling and eliminating the unnecessary extras.

2. Do I really need all this food?

In a year, the average American household spends about $2,787 on restaurant meals and takeout, compared to $3,971 on groceries. That’s about $230 and $330 a month, respectively. So, can you really afford over $500 a month on food?

Questions to ask comprise of:

  • Why am I eating this? Is it for actual nourishment or trying to fill a “need”?
  • Can I make this myself instead?
  • Am I really that tired or lazy to make a quick meal (grilled cheese, soup, etc.) instead of grabbing fast food?
  • Is there a recipe to use up these leftover ingredients?

Some examples of needs and wants are:

  • Buying and sticking with brand-name food is a want – we want to stick with the familiar. For example, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cost $3.64 (with an Ibotta cash-back offer of 75¢ it’s $2.89). Going with a generic brand is a need – You can get a generic version for only $2.85. You need to save money, not want your favorite.
  • Buying ready-made meals is a quick convenience but can get expensive – it’s a want – we want it now. Make it from scratch and save not with money but more portions – is a need – we can take the time to create good food we need.
  • Buying food to fill a void, emotional, boredom, loneliness, is a want. Buying healthy food to satisfy your hunger and stay healthy is a need.

To prevent food overload, shop on a full stomach, stick to a list, or skip the store and shop online.

3. Do I really need all these outfits?

Women’s closets and their statement of “I have nothing to wear” has been a gag in countless tv shows and movies. But it is true, we do have too many clothes – that goes for men too!

So, to save money and time, you need to go through your closets and determine what outfit is a need and what outfit is a want.

Go through your clothing and ask yourself:

  • Why do I own this? Is it for work or casual wear?
  • How many of these do I already own?
  • When was the last time I wore this? (If you can’t remember – toss it)
  • Does this still fit me?

Some samples are:

  • Having enough shoes for work and leisure is a need. Having several colored shoes for every style and designs is a want. Buy shoes in neutral colors – black, white, and brown, will be more interchangeable and match more outfits.
  • Buying clothes to match your personal style is a smart need. Buying clothes that is matching your current mood is an unnecessary want. Who’s bought clothes when they were in a “crazy and fun mood” and later looking at that outfit and wonder what were you thinking?
  • Buying and keeping clothes for emotional reasons – sentimental, fear you may need it later, it’ll come back into style, and so on – is a want. Buying and keeping clothes to only replace worn clothes, fit the seasons, and new events, is a Keep your closet current and pack off-seasons clothes, diet clothes, and other clothes packed away elsewhere.

Besides, you can make a little pocket money by selling all your purged clothes, like on Poshmark and Threadup.

Safety needs

This category covers our safety and security needs, this means our homes and feeling safe. This is intertwined with the same questions from our physiological needs.

So, questions to ask regarding your safety needs are:

4. Is my place the size I really need?

To decipher the difference between needs and wants about our place we can ask:

  • Do my living quarters accommodate my needs?
  • Am I living in a place more for accommodating my stuff?
  • Were ego and pride involved when I picked this place? One-upping friends and family?

Life situations to compare these:

  • Living in a 4-bedroom home in a high-class neighborhood for 2 people is a want. A 2-bedroom bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood would better suit your need.
  • Having a place out of the city and commuting in because it saves money is a need. Having a place where everything is convenient and real close-by, but expensive is a want.

Learn other ways that downsizing your home will benefit your bank account.

5. Are all my safety and security concerns valid?

This may sound like a weird question to ask, but just read the following statistics and you’ll understand what I mean.

  • 85% of what we worry about never actually happen
  • 40% of Americans fear getting robbed. The actual likelihood of getting robbed at least once in your lifetime is only 30%
  • 65% of Americans worry over money. But the average American has an extra $17,000 a year in money after expenses.
  • 27% of adults say they eat to manage stress
  • 72% of Americans are worried about a future where robots and computers take over. (I don’t mean Skynet and the Terminator, but technology capable of decision-making and performing many human jobs – self driving cars, medical and surgery robots and such

Okay, I was having fun with that last statistic, but you see what I mean now? Questions about which are needs and wants consist of:

  • Do I have a viable financial plan in place?
  • Am I handling my stress well?
  • Do I have adequate insurance?
  • Am I safe where I live and work?

Exploring related needs and wants examples:

  • Having a proper budget to control your spending and expenses is a need. Relying on credit cards to cover your impulse buys is a want.
  • Getting proper, but budget-friendly, insurance for your car, home, life, and health is a reasonable need to have. Going with family or friends’ advice on what coverage or company to go with to appease them is an unwise
  • Shopping to satisfy is an unhealthy want. Finding safer outlets to address your issues is an essential need.

It’s nice to feel safe and secure wherever you are – but within reason.

Belongingness & Love needs

Here in this section, we’re getting into our psychological needs. Our basic need to feel sociable, wanted, and loved.

Let’s go:

6. Am I going overboard with my social life?

If you’re a social butterfly who loves going out a lot, you need to ask yourself if your activities are hurting your finances. Are you:

  • Going out with friends every weekend?
  • Spending a lot of money on hobbies and interests?
  • Regretting spending money afterward?
  • Struggling to pay expenses after a holiday or occasion?

Now the comparisons:

  • Planning everything cost-wise ahead of time is a financial need. Going out whenever someone suggests it without checking your budget is a want.
  • Opting for free events or a gathering at home can be a budgeting need. Deciding to take off for a holiday trip last minute, is a wallet-harming want.
  • Buying gifts for family and friends as an emotional token of friendship is a want. Making gifts or helping out without a “price tag” is a much favorable need.

Frugal for Less is jam-packed with different ways to spend a lot less on travel, holidays, entertainment, and more.

7. Is my psychological need for love and attention running my finances?

Okay, now this is getting a little awkward right? We’ve seen the News stories and even laughed at memes on social media about crazy love affairs.

But the sad truth is that 1 out of 3 people have a fear of being alone, so they seek constant companionship and sometimes in negative ways. Ask yourself:

  • Am I splurging on people so they’d stay with me?
  • Am I spending a lot of money to stay out and socialize?
  • Am I thinking too much (even obsessively) about a particular person?

Equate some situations:

  • Having a fair and equal relationship with someone is an acceptable emotional need. Spending an excessive amount of money and time vying after someone is a questionable want.
  • Buying things for yourself, your home, or for people that are within your budget is a planned need. Buying things to fill a void, to feel better about yourself, or to fill your space to the point of hoarding is an unsafe emotional want.
  • Buying a dozen roses ($20 or more) every week for a spouse or partner is a costly want. Coming up with creative (and even free) ways to express your feelings is a much better need for your wallet (and is appreciated much more).

I’m only talking about extreme cases here, but an emotional need is a strong motivator and I suggest seeking help if your finances are in ruins because of it.

Esteem needs

This tier covers our feelings of accomplishment, pride, and ego.

8. Am I trying to “keep up with the Joneses”

Look around at your belongings – house, car, electronics, and so on. Ask yourself:

  • Am I constantly looking to be bigger and better?
  • Do I frequently upgrade everything when the “next big thing” comes out?
  • Am I in deep debt because of my ego and pride?

Do the guesswork on these needs and wants:

  • Buying a big house, luxury car, and all the “extras”? Sticking with what fits your budget and needs? If you don’t know, the first is a wasteful want, and the second is a smart budget need.
  • Needing to “flash” your money or credit card and pay the tab for everyone while out? Offering to host a modest get-together at your place instead of heading out. (First – prideful want, Second, humble need.)

Again, I used extreme examples here, but did you know that 43% of American families spend more than they earn? Learn how to combat this urge and be happy with what you have.


The last tier on the Maslow hierarchy covers our self-fulfillment needs. This is really an accumulation of all the other tiers of course and means our overall satisfaction, reaching our full potential and realizing our meaning in life.

For this article, this tier means our acceptance of our financial situation and creating money goals to accomplish a better economic future.

Reaching this tier means we’ve curbed, or compromised, our wants and that’s an awesome accomplishment!

9. Can I keep (or add back) something I want?

You’ve gone through all the previous steps and successfully eliminated many “wants” from your life for a while and now are in a good financial place where you can afford some “extras” in your life.

Here are some suggestions on how to keep a few “wants” in your life:

  • Move things around – Some things you’ve indicated as needs may actually be wants, or vice versa. Re-evaluate your budget and re-do your list.
  • Trim spending on needs – Even if you need to pay for something, you may not need to pay as much as you’re currently paying for it. Use discounts, buy used, use cash-back apps, and such
  • Trim spending on wants – Consider downsizing your “wants”, choose a “want” on a smaller scale than you originally wanted

Attaining financial freedom is a grand self-fulfilling and satisfying goal to reach.


Now, know that I’m not saying you should only buy the things that you only need and ditch everything else? No, not at all – life is meant to be lived, not survived.

Lastly, to keep from aggravating your needs vs. wants mental battle – shop like a minimalist and ask:

  • Would I still buy this if I had to use the last X dollars to my name?
  • Would tragedy strike if I waited 30 days to buy this?
  • Is there another way to solve the problem without spending any money?
  • Do I already have something similar to this?
  • Could I borrow this from someone instead of buying one for myself?
  • Could I rent this instead of buying it and save some money?
  • Can I repair the one I have instead of buying a new one?

You should treat yourself to some wants along the way, but do so when you can afford to, and enjoy those wants as extra special perks in your life.

Maybe these other articles can help you reach your goals too:

Tracy Stine

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