Needs vs Wants

By Tamar Snyder

Instead of simply defining a “need” and a “want,” the eleventh graders at Manhattan High School for Girls got up from their desks on a recent Wednesday morning and stood between two signs located on either end of the classroom. On one sign, the word “need” was written in bold black letters. On the opposite end of the room hung a sign emblazoned with the word “want.” Between the two signs lay a continuum.

“A cell phone – is that a ‘want’ or a ‘need,’ or something in between?” I asked my students.

A noticeable group of young ladies shuffled toward the “need” sign. “I can’t live without my cell phone,” one student explained. “My parents need to know where I am,” said another. “It’s really hard to coordinate plans with my friends without a cell phone since we all text one another,” said a third.

A few students stood next to the “want” sign. “I don’t have a cell phone — my parents don’t let me — but I manage just fine,” said one student. “People have lived for thousands of years without a cell phone, so it’s not a real need,” explained another.

The students standing between both signs explained that a cell phone isn’t as much of a need as shelter or water, but it seems like more than a “want” to them, especially these days, when pay phones are difficult to find.

The exercise – which was repeated with the words “laptop,” “Internet,” and an “iPad mini” – demonstrated in a very real way just how easy it is to confuse a “want” for a “need.” (Advertisers know this to be true, and that’s why they bombard us with commercials aimed at promising us that their products will satisfy our true needs, like the need for companionship and security).

We don’t necessarily have to deprive ourselves of those things we want, but we do need to be aware that it is, in fact, a “want” – and ensure that we are first providing for our needs before spending our paychecks on the “wants.” That’s just one of the lessons I hope to instill within my students. The personal finance course I am teaching at Manhattan High School is one of the few full-year, required courses on the topic to be offered at a Jewish day school. Kudos to the administration at Manhattan High School for understanding just how important it is to ensure that graduates are financially savvy – that they know how to create and keep to a budget, they understand the importance of paying the full balance on their credit cards (on time, of course!), and they begin investing early (yay for compound interest), among other key learnings.

The course is a direct result of JWI’s Life$aving Program pilot program in New York, which I had the privilege of creating the curriculum and delivering workshops on budgeting, savings, investing, and tzedakah to nearly 500 Jewish teen girls at schools, synagogues, and youth groups across New York. Financial education is increasingly important, yet fewer high school students are learning the basics about money. Charles Schwab’s 2011 Teens & Money Survey found that while 77% of teens surveyed believe they are financially savvy about money, only 35 percent confess to knowing how to balance a checkbook or manage a credit card. Less than half (31 percent) understand how credit card interest and fees work, and less than a quarter (22 percent) of these teens surveyed understand how income taxes work.

As Life$avings continues to expand its reach into new cities around the country, it is my hope that educators – particularly in the Jewish world –will begin incorporating financial education into their curricula.

Tamar Snyder teaches personal finance at Manhattan High School in New York. She can be reached at

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