Needs vs Wants

Is it a need or a want?… How many of us start a financial class with this dichotomy for spending? Not that it’s wrong to do this, but I feel like there’s so much more to the conversation AFTER you’ve established the two ends of the spectrum. As I’ve taught and learned more about personal finance, I’ve realize that most items we spend money on gets a classic “it depends” response when challenged as to whether it is a need or a want for the general public. My goals in class therefore has been to jump on that “it depends” moment and develop our thinking further. What we are really trying to determine is the order in which we would purchase things or services if money had a limited supply (which is does for 99.99% of the world’s population).

I want to take you through the discovery learning activities I do that actually do not result in a concrete answer or definition for where the divide is between needs and wants. Instead, my goal is for students to come out on the other side with an understanding that they need to put conscious thought into their spending since spending on one thing means we cannot spend that same money on another thing. We need to be managers of what we have to reach our personal goals and live the lifestyle we desire.

What would you take to Space?

In the physical education part of my teacher training (did you know I am a certified math, financial education AND PE teacher?) we had a section called Outdoor Adventure Education. I’m not sure if it exists here in the US (I did my undergraduate degree in Ireland), but it consisted of activities like orienteering, kayaking, swimming, etc. One activity that stuck in my mind was a game we would do with elementary school children where we had a bunch of clothing options and they had to dress a person shaped poster for going camping. They could also choose different food to bring or equipment to put in a backpack. It wasn’t formally called needs and wants, but that’s what it ended up being about and I wanted to replicate that experience for my high school students to introduce the idea of needs, wants, and prioritizing items in a particular order.

The activity is called Space Quest. The students are placed into teams (I do this by having the desks arranged into groups of 4 or 5 before they arrive in the room) and once we are ready to begin, I play a video that introduces the task to them.

You’re being sent to explore a new planet as a potential place for humanity to move to or expand to. There are some pieces of information given about the planet they are being sent to, but beyond that everything is an assumption. Based on what they know, they have to select 16 items from a list of 72 to bring with them to this new planet, not knowing how long they will be staying there for.

The groups debate and attempt to whittle down the available options into a final 16.

Of course, there’s no “answer” and every group will make a case for their items based on their prior experiences and priorities for survival. As they arrive close to a conclusion, an alert sounds as a second video message plays. The number of items must be cut to 8. They go back into their groups and try to agree on their 8 items for final presentation.

We then leave our 8 items out on the table and go view the other groups before coming back as a group to debrief and discuss why certain items were picked and others left behind. I ask them to place categories on the items picked and what they are used for, and we see most groups are tending to the same core needs: food, shelter, clothing, safety, and health.

Space Quest: A Needs vs Wants Cooperative Game

In this group activity, teams will be introduced to the scenario by a video informing them that they have been selected to join Space Quest, a team being tasked with determining if a newly discovered planet could sustain humanity. There isn't much time. They must decide from a list of 72 different items, which 16 are making it onto the ship. As the activity progresses, they are challenged to reduce the number of items they are taking, and this forces teams to debate and advocate for items that they deem are needs for survival.

What about real life needs and wants?

Sure, going to space is a very fun activity, but how does it translate to real life in the present day? Are there more need categories? Is it plausible to just focus on survival or are there are spending areas that require attention in a budget? Rather than answering that question, we pull out another activity. This can be in the same class as Space Quest or on a different day. Since emergency drills and assemblies are more frequent in the beginning of a semester, these activities sometimes get spaced out and occupy shorter class periods very nicely!

The activity is a Needs vs Wants sorting activity, where I ask the students to divide all items they are given into either needs or wants. By forcing the students to pick one, it creates create dialog between the groups and I typically see some great debates with arguments for both sides of the line. I ask the groups to identify some of their more controversial items and we discuss as a class. When posed with the question of why it’s a need for some groups and a want for others, we eventually arrive at the conclusion that it is different for every person and many things don’t fit nicely into one category or another. Instead, it should be viewed as a spectrum from core need to frivolous want. Everything fits somewhere on the spectrum and the placement of items will vary based on our situation, values, and goals. If there’s time, I ask students to try to place the items on a spectrum. They can do a line, create different categories, or come up with their own system. A hallway is great for this since it gives them lots of room to spread out!

Needs vs Wants Sorting Activity

This activity is designed to start conversations and debates amongst students. By asking them to try and sort the items into one of two categories, there will be healthy discussions between students and adults about what truly qualifies as a need and was is actually a want. The great thing about this activity is that it can be used with any age and the only thing that will change is the level of conversation and the understanding that stems from hearing the thoughts and opinions of others.

The activity includes printable sorting mats (8"x11" and 11"x17" size included) and 96 unique item cards with items that are age-appropriate and relevant to their lives.

How do I decide what to prioritize in a budget?

The goal of the course and unit is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and mindset needed to manage their money in the real world. There’s no substitute for real life practice, but we try our best with different activities and simulations. The next activity I do with the students, builds on the previous Needs vs Wants sorting and challenges students to categorize spending based on urgency and importance. It’s called the Budgeting Matrix and it’s based on the Eisenhower Matrix which gets its name from the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was quoted saying, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. Eisenhower developed a quadrant based tool to aide with decision-making and prioritization of time. We can use the same logic with our money!

All spending can be classified based on its level of importance and how urgently it needs to be addressed. Things that need to be paid for now or within the next week have a higher urgency than the stuff that could be purchased whenever.

Importance is a bit more subjective, but how I teach it is that important spending categories improve or maintain your standard of living in a way that matters to you. Bills can be urgent, but not important, such as a Netflix subscription. Or they can be urgent and important such as your rent for the month.

Things that would really move our lives forward can sometimes end up in the important, but not urgent quadrant which leaves us with the feeling of “someday I’ll do it”. Investing, insurance, starting a business expenses, and saving are often in here.

The stuff that is for fun or short term pleasure is in the not important and not urgent category. Your snack stops, gaming expenses, and morning coffee stop are probably in here (don’t hate me coffee lovers! I am one of you!).

Get students into small groups again. 3-5 is the sweet spot where you have enough diversity of opinion that people get  their views challenged, but don’t get lost in the noise of dominant group members. Each group gets 100 items taken from the average American’s budget and must sort them into the quadrants.

Like before, ask the students to note controversial items (hygiene products and gifts always end up in here) to discuss as a class. The final takeaway should come out as:

  • Everyone will have different ways of determining what is important, but we all need to pay attention to the urgent and important.

  • The important, but not urgent category is often the most important for building wealth in the long term and needs to be viewed as if it were urgent.

  • It’s ok to spend on things in the not urgent and not important category, but only if the other categories are being taken care of too.

The Budget Matrix

Students are given up to 100 cards featuring items found in average Americans spending. They then categorize spending on the item by importance and urgency into one of four quadrants. This makes a wonderful group or whole class activity, with the aim of prompting discussion, debate, and sharing of experiences. All of which will help deepen student understanding of how to prioritize their spending and create spending plans that match their values/goals.

Put it into practice

I’ve tried a few different simulations for budgeting, including Budget Challenge, Personal Finance Lab, and Stukent. They all have their positives and negatives, with the biggest negative being the cost in most cases. It’s hard to find $15-$45 per student license for a personal finance class that exists in the math department. Core classes such as Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and Statistics get higher priority when it comes to resource distribution, which makes sense considering the value colleges and state departments place on them compared to personal finance (for now!).

When I was introduced to Cashy by one of the development team and asked to be an early product tester, I was skeptical. Cashy is a simulation which challenges students to build wealth and maintain a level of happiness based on a bunch of decisions impacting their spending, investing, and time. The early versions were a little rough, but I loved involving my students in the process of offering feedback to the developers and giving them the opportunity to shape the direction of the game. They could see their feedback and recommendations being added to the game which was super cool and it helped create the best free simulation on the market in my opinion. That’s right… FREE! Their goal is to keep the simulations free for teachers and students though corporate sponsorships that don’t include misleading ads or poor financial products. I love it and I am hands down an advocate for them without receiving any form of compensation.

Cashy Game

In the classroom, we use Cashy as a fun way to practice and trial different ways of allocating our given resources to build wealth and strike a balance with our quality of life.

I track all the final scores for the semester on a leaderboard which you can get for free here.


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