Needs Versus Wants

Everyone is familiar with the concept of needs versus wants. Our parents teach it to us when we are in the learning stages of our lives, when we are being taught the virtues of sharing, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, working hard for your rewards and treating others with respect. It’s one of life’s little golden rules; not everything you want is something you need. But is this a concept that people truly understand?

A freelance writer I know spent a lot of time a couple years back boasting about her salary per yer, the fact that she lives in one of Seattle’s nicer neighborhoods, the fact that she makes X dollars per month, the fact that she and her husband drive Y cars and so on and so forth. And a couple of years ago I wrote a post called “What is success, and how do I achieve it?”

To quote myself from that article, “What is success? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, success is any sort of favorable or desired outcome, or the attainment of wealth, favor, and eminence.”

Specifically, I’d like to pay attention to the part about any sort of favorable or desired outcome. More to the point, I’d like to cover something I talked about in that article, which is how money earned and things purchased do not necessarily equal success.

“But that’s ludicrous,” you sputter. “Everyone knows that the true measure of success is how much money you have in the bank!”

Only in the United States, my friends. Or countries like it.

Let me give you an example. A few weeks back some friends and I were visiting the colonial town of Villa de Levya, a few hours outside of Bogota here in Colombia. One day when we were hiking down through the town we passed a BBQ going on at one of the local’s houses. Roughly 20 people gathered around, all of them drinking beer, enjoying the beautiful weather, grilling up some steaks and vegetables, and we noted how they had been doing the exact same thing every day for the past three days we had been in the town. They are simple people, living on around 200-300 dollars per month. They don’t have cars, they don’t have XBoxes, they don’t have iPhones or iPads or smartphones or laptops or 50 inch flatscreen televisions. And yet there they were, huge smiles on their faces, laughter all around and joy in their lives. I turned to one friend and mentioned how refreshing it was to be reminded that you don’t need tons of money and possessions to be happy in life.

Which brings me to the point of needs versus wants. Let’s take the writer from the start of the article, making her 80k a year with her fancy house in the burbs and the nice cars and plenty of toys. For her, success is measured in possessions and money. She makes 80k a year, but spends almost all of that on the possessions she has. At the end of the year she might put a couple of thousand of dollars in the bank after taxes, the house, the car payments and otherwise. Meanwhile, let’s take a guy working at McDonald’s, still living with his parents. He has no car, no rent, lives cheap and only makes around 25k a year. But because he has no possessions dictating that he spend all of his money on the sake of appearances, he only needs about 8-10k a year for living expenses, so at the end of the year he puts 15k or so in the bank. After a few years of working he has enough money saved up to pay for his own house in cash, and bam, he’s retired by the time he’s 30-35.

It’s pretty simple math. His needs are less than the first writer, so he can save more money per year by living simply. He’s not living poorly, just choosing to define success by a different measure.

As my long-term readers know, I’m an expat, a digital nomad, a location independent international vagabond. I make my home wherever I feel like traveling. Over the past 12 years I’ve seen dozens of countries, and for the past four years I’ve been living abroad in various cities around the world. I have every single amenity I had back when I was living in Greeley, Colorado, but I cut my cost of living down from over $30,000 a year to around $10-12,000 per year, including travel. That’s total expenses per year.

I have air conditioning, high speed Internet, high definition television, fully furnished apartments, world class medical coverage and I live an upper middle class existence on a fraction of what it costs to do so back in the United States. For example, my apartment in Bogota, Colombia is in the Chapinero district, near the Lourdes church, smack-dab in the heart of downtown. I pay around $325 per month for a fully furnished apartment with all utilities included, and I pay around $400 per month for my total other expenses, including food and entertainment. That’s around 700 per month, maybe 800 if I’m pushing it and spending a lot on wine.

That’s right. $800 per month in total expenses.

How much are you paying where you live?

Now ask yourself: do you really need to be living where you are now, or do you simply want to be living where you live now? Are you tired of the cost of living? Wish you had more free time? Dream of a time when you could work 3-4 hours per day and still make enough money to live like a king, plus put money in the savings every month? Find yourself struggling month after month to barely find the funds to put food on the table for you and yours? Contemplating financial aid from the government because you just simply don’t have enough money to make ends meet?

In times of economic crisis, those of us who are freelancing have it easy in the sense that we can pack up and go wherever we want. As long as we have a laptop and the Internet, our livelihoods are taken care of. And for those of you who might be struggling with the weight of it all, wishing and hoping and praying for a way out, you might want to consider the lifestyle of a digital nomad. You can have all of the things you have back home at a fraction of the price, plus you can explore exotic cultures and experience places around the world that most people only dream about or barely get to taste on their two weeks of vacation per year.

But don’t take my word for it. Just do a random search on expat living, digital nomads, location independent travelers, or international vagabonds. You’ll see that there are more and more people out there trading the needs they were told they had to have in exchange for the things in life they really want. You can also check out my digital nomad website, Marginal Boundaries, for more information on how I do what I do, and why you should consider it as well.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

Posted in Complete Writing Solutions Travel Tips, Freelance Writing 101, Freelance Writing Tips, The World Is Your Oyster Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
6 comments on “Needs Versus Wants
  1. Abigail says:

    Ah, needs versus wants. The shame is that so many people believe that they do need the HD TV, every mod con at home, a new car … The most difficult thing can be to step away from those.

    In my apartment in Cambodia, I don’t have hot water. But I don’t need it – it’s plus 30C almost all the time. I don’t have a super fancy kitchen with an oven, mixer, grill and 101 gadgets. But I don’t need them – I can eat out every day if I choose. I don’t even have a proper wardrobe, but I have plenty of tailor made clothes and shoes. My style of living is much different from the UK, and I am, currently, much happier here than I would be there. I appreciate sunsets, smiles, interactions and small talk.

    Adjusting your priorities and changing your lifestyle is much easier if you’re in a foreign country. There’s no social system that you are expected to adhere to, no expectations passed on since you were a kid, no road map of what standard success is. It’s possible to make those changes and still live in your own country (as your Macdonald’s example shows) but it’s easier and probably more fun to do it abroad.

  2. Exactly, Abigail :) I preach the exact same sermons over at Marginal Boundaries.

    For example, here in Bogota I don’t need AC…it’s a mild 75 degrees in the day, 50s at night (F). I live out of a 35 liter backpack and another smaller backpack…few pairs of shirts, shorts and pants, couple of sweaters. I don’t need 50 outfits for 50 different occasions. I don’t need a car because public transportation here rocks. The lack of a car alone saves me upwards of 1,000 per month, if not more, in total expenses. I don’t eat out very often, because I’m normally cooking at home. And amenities/food cost a fraction of the cost here they do back in the States.

    Good to hear from another location independent digital nomad. Cheers!

  3. Erica says:

    T.W. I am so happy you have written this. I live in the United States and I can tell you, my husband and I feel we are living in hell. Why do we feel this way? Because for the past year and a half we have struggled with apartment prices rising every six months to minumum wage going down every six months or hours being cut- so we were homeless last year and thank God we now have a new, low cost apartment. However, the apartment costs $575.00/month and is worth only $20/month.

    We have learned to cut back on renting “luxuries” too. Last year we rented from Rent a Center..not good. So now we have a television thats paid for, bought our furniture from a thrift store in excellent condition, and do not own a car, or hi-tech phones. We do not have cable, and our laptop is wireless using a cheap broadband data card running about $10-$20 dollars. We are saving more money than ever, however being that America is so stinking expensive we find ourselves ina bind again. Jobs aren’t willing to hire and working online isn’t paying enough.

    I certainly understand where you are coming from.

  4. Sorry to hear that you aren’t having any progress making money online. There’s a lot of opportunities out there, but it can be difficult when you are pressured into needing X dollars per month to pay the bills. One thing about Living Like a Local in foreign cities is that you can focus more on getting your bills under control and start saving. And doing so (living like a local) allows you to have ALL of the luxuries you want, except they don’t cost you a fortune to have.

    My brother is in the process of coming down to Cancun. He’s been in Chicago for around 6 or 7 years now, and he’s paying 1650 per month for his apartment. Above and beyond that, he’s got other bills and necessities and is spending upwards of $3,000 per month just for his basic needs. When he started reading about my experiences in Cancun last year and my trip to Bogota that I’m presently wrapping up, living an upper middle class existence on a mere $700 a month in comparison, his interest was piqued. Had a 2 hour Skype conversation a few weeks ago, and now he’s in the process of selling his stuff and shedding all of the non-necessities to make the move.

    Something to consider: my apartment in Cancun was in centro. It was a 2 bedroom place, completely furnished, king sized bed in the master bedroom, queen in the guest bedroom, brand new fridge, kitchen table, sofa and love seat with a foldout bed, cable television, dishes, utensils, cookware, sheets, blankets, closets, bureaus, and gas, water and Internet is included. The only thing extra you pay is the AC/electric. My rent on the place was right around 400 dollars per month, and my utilities ran about 50 bucks a month running the AC non-stop. In the winter months you don’t need AC, and your bill drops to around 15-20 a month. Landlords were very nice (invited me out to dinners, drove me around town on occasion, very up-scale, educated people). Food was right around $200 a month, and entertainment was about $100 per month. So for $700 per month I was living like a king, doing everything I wanted, when I wanted. For the two of you, you could do the same for about 800-1000 per month, depending on how much entertainment you need :)

  5. Erica says:

    T.W., thanks so much for the encouragement and I will be heading over to the living like a local site. I was thinking me and my husband could probably save money and then move? We actually have been talking about leaving this country for some time now because the pressure can be felt all around us. The money hungry upper management is riculous! It is amazing how a country could boast on being so smart, so rich, and so christian can fail so hard at basic economics. It may never change.

    Thanks so much, humbly

  6. Depends on your goal, but for example…I just wrote a series of articles for a friend’s website ( in the same vein as what I have up on the Marginal Boundaries site, talking about living on $1000 a month or less, yet having the exact same amenities you had back in the States. And keep in mind Cancun is not the only city you can do this in….many Asian cities are the same, as are European places if you know where to look.

    I’m not going to tell you what to do, but IMO it’s a smart move. I haven’t lived in the States for 4 years and have zero plans to go back because the cost of living is continuing to skyrocket, and I’m living on less than $1000 per month with the exact same things I had back in Colorado for $2500-3000 per month.

    My advice would be to check out the basics on Mexico via the Cancun section of the website. I have several free links up, with Mexperience website being the world’s leading information on the cost of living in Mexico as a whole…then if you want specific information on Cancun my guide would help you out. But no point in paying for something until you have researched all the free stuff you can find, and the Mexperience site is a great place to start.

    I flew from Denver last year to Cancun for $140 one-way via Delta. You get 6 months to stay on your passport alone, and getting your FM3 is a breeze…just need to prove around $1000 per month of income and you get a 5 year residency card which allows you to start a bank account down there and set up long-term shop if you decide you like it. If not, at the very least you have 6 months of extremely cheap living (two people can easily live on $1000 a month and have everything they need for an upper middle-class existence, and you won’t need furniture/etc. because the apartments come with EVERYTHING…Internet, furniture, fridge, microwave, dishes, sheets, everything you would need). All you need is your computer and your clothing and you are good to go.

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