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4 Things We Are Duped Into Thinking We Need

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There are plenty of things we absolutely need. We need food. We need water. We need shelter. Heck, Maslow built a career on a hierarchy of needs that we absolutely must satisfy (with an order too!). Somewhere along the line, the massive marketing and advertising machine that is capitalism, our needs became converted and adjusted to fit the bottom line of some firm. Much like how the term “hero” is often overused (athletes aren’t heroes, first responders are), we often call something a “need” when in reality it’s a want.

Here are just four “needs” that really and truly are simply “wants:”

A 5-Bladed Vibrating Razor

Gillette Fusion vs. Simple RazorCompanies often feel as though they need to constantly innovate or be left behind. Cannibalize yourself or your competitors will. That’s probably the logic that led to one of the most ludicrous innovations in straight razor technology, vibration. The Gillette Fusion razor is a five-bladed razor that vibrates, effectively simulating an automatic shaver. The vibration does absolutely nothing, yet they have convinced many that this innovation is worth $9.99 (current price on Drugstore.com). It might be unfair to pick on Gillette but many razor companies rely on fancy innovations to try to win your business. While one could argue whether we actually “need” to shave, the fact is we don’t need a $10 razor ($15 for a refill 4-pack) to do it.

Adding more blades doesn’t really add much to the equation anymore either. When razors went from one blade to two, the incidence of cuts went down dramatically because the pressure per blade was halved. From two to three, the pressure was cut down by a third. From three to four, that’s only 25%. How many innovations do we have left and how much more are we willing to pay for a razor?

Stainless Steel Appliances

Stainless Steel AppliancesWhen the housing boom was in full force, THE thing every home must have was stainless steel appliances. The dishwasher, the range, the fridge, and even the microwave had to have that reflective sheen that screamed “modern.” It was partly style, partly preference, but hardly any substance because stainless steel meant absolutely nothing. None of the benefits of stainless steel really apply to the kitchen appliances. How often is your dishwasher subjected to ultra-high temperatures? Hopefully never. How often do you clean the exterior of your fridge? You probably wipe it down every once and a while (ours is covered in magnets and clippings, I haven’t wiped it down in three years). Stainless steel, outside of aesthetics, offers no appreciable benefit… unless you’re selling it.

The Swiss-Army-Knife of Cell Phones

Apple iPhoneLet’s take the basics of a cordless phone and pimp it out so hard that people would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for them and sign up for service plans that will slowly extract thousands. When you get past the “cool factor” and technological beauty that make up today’s smartphones like the Apple iPhone and Blackberry (whatever), they all do the same thing as a phone that a telephone company would give to you for free.

Somewhere along the line, we became enamored with the fact that we could get a phone that take photos, capture video, send and receive text messages, surf the web, play games, and do all sorts of really cool things. Don’t get me wrong, I think the devices are absolutely wonderful… but how connected do you really need to be? On a recent trip to London, my wife and I had no cell phone and felt absolutely wonderful about it. No phone meant no work emails or work “emergencies” (that are never emergencies). While it also meant no maps or search, we fared perfectly well by asking complete strangers where the nearest tube station was. The phones certainly are nice… but we don’t need them.

900 Channels on Cable Television

Busted TelevisionIn our “more is better” society, cable companies have learned that the quickest way into our wallets is by touting how many million channels they offer. The reality is that we watch very few of them. For the last week, we wrote down how many channels we watched and the answer was eight. We watched full shows on NBC (Heroes, Law & Order(s)), ABC (Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy), and FOX (House), and NFL Network (Thursday Night Football). And we popped in on TNT, Discovery Channel, CNBC, and History Channel. Of the hundreds of channels that we get through Verizon FiOS, we watched eight. Eight is probably about average too, sometimes we touch on a few more random channels (Food Network is always popular, we just didn’t catch any last week), but considering we have so many, isn’t it odd that we only watched 8?

It’s probably not that extraordinary and I suspect many people share our experience. We simply don’t watch a lot of television (some would say we watch too much!). I think that if we were to cut out cable television, we wouldn’t miss much. We could still catch most of our shows on the regular network’s websites or Hulu.com (every 30 Rock episode I’ve ever seen was on Hulu.com). Another great online site for free television shows is Sling.com.

Can you think of any needs that are really just wants?

(Photo: Gillette Fusion by dbarefoot, Stainless steel appliances by john-schilling, iPhone by johanl, Television by janramroth)

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26 Responses to “4 Things We Are Duped Into Thinking We Need”

  1. Miranda says:

    The other day my son said, “I need…” followed by a description of some fantastic toy. “No,” I said, “you don’t need it. You want it.” We had a discussion about the differences between needs and wants. I’m not sure he really understands, but I think I’m laying a foundation for the future.

    It’s amazing to me how so many wants have turned into “needs.”

  2. Traciatim says:

    Ultra-super-mega-fantastical high speed internet access. There are very few uses for 10-20Mbps connections short of if you subscribe to a movie streaming service and want to stream rather than pre-download your videos.

    I would be willing to bet the majority of people using 2Mbps+ connections wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 512Kbps (or possibly even 256Kbps) connection and their own, unless you have a specific need for it don’t bother.

    • jim says:

      @Traciatim: Yes definitely, I was listening to the Kojo Nnamdi (a public radio show in the Washington DC area) and he had some guests on to talk about internet connections and the one guy said 10Mbps can do just about everything except HD video teleconferencing and some other stuff regular people don’t do. 2Mbps is probably good enough to do almost everything a regular consumer needs… so you’re right, paying out the nose for something “better” doesn’t make much sense.

  3. Greg says:

    Stainless steel refrigerators are the worst…you can not hang up your kid’s pictures and school papers with a magnet.

  4. Clever Dude says:

    Ok, I can probably do without a full 5 blades in my razor compared to four, but I have some very thick and stiff stubble that makes shaving with anything less than 4 blades very painful and often bloody. But yes, the vibrating version…absolutely ridiculous.

    • Lynnard says:

      That may be because of faulty technique.
      Try this:
      a) Use as steep of an angle as you possibly can while shaving
      b) Use very little pressure when you shave (almost negative pressure), as if you are gliding above your skin and not even touching it.
      c) Always use plenty of hot water before and during a shave to wet your face.
      d) Use a shave brush (badger hair) and proraso shave cream.
      Trust me, I was exactly like you, now a simple twin blade works wonders.

  5. Miss M says:

    Mr M loves the fusion razor. He thinks it works well. Stainless steel appliances will look very dated in a few years, it will be the harvest gold of the 2000′s.

  6. I personally use one of the power fusion 5 blades. At first I was a bit skeptical of it, but after having used it for a while, I ran out of blades and decided to use one of the “emergency” non-powered blades for my schick. Ouch. The 5 blades might not make a difference over say 3 or 4 blades, but I really like the powered part. I may not “need” the 5 blade powered, but I certainly “want” it and it’s a small luxury that I can give myself.

  7. Glenn Lasher says:

    I’d love to drop back the satellite channels.

    Dish Network used to offer channels à la carte, for a price of $1.50/channel-month, with a $5 monthly minimum. For various reasons (some good, some not so much), they stopped doing this.

    Unfortunately, one of the channels we do watch (National Geographic) got moved up to a higher tier to make room for one I couldn’t care less about (a sports channel of some sort) and we have to get 199 other channels to get that one.

    We do have HBO, and we do watch it frequently.

    We have recently purchased one of the $40-off DTV converters, and I’m trying to get the reception up to snuff. With that in place, we would be able to cut locals out of our satellite-TV lineup (saving $6/month) and getting a better picture to boot.

    On iPhones, iHave said on many occasions that iDon’t get it. iCarry a Sanyo SCP-4930, and it does everything I need. I can make phone calls, and people can call me. It can do SMS, but I have that turned off, because . . . Ooh! There’s one!

    SMS! We don’t need it. It’s way too expensive for a service that can only carry 160 characters at a rip. Along with it, put cell phones with flip-out QWERTY

    Um. Back to what iWas saying. I have the SMS turned off. It can also function as a web browser, but that is also shut off, because it is too expensive. Its predecessor (SCP-4920) could be tethered to a PC to function as a modem, but they shut that off in this model.

    On the other hand, it has been pointed out to me that an iPhone plus the service to run it can, under some circumstances, be more economical than buying a computer, phone service and Internet access as separate items. I haven’t confirmed this.

    • jim says:

      @Glenn: On the point of buying a computer, phone, and internet access… it might be cheaper but you’re not getting the same level of service. Browsing the web on an iPhone isn’t like sitting at a computer with a 19″ or 21″ or even just a 12″ monitor. I wouldn’t consider those substitutes.

  8. Rob says:

    Call me a sucker, but I just gotta have a swiss army cell phone. If they ever design a phone that can do everything mine can now, and shave and cook dinner, I’ll pay all the money for it.

    Razors, on the other hand, I agree with 100%. I only use a Gilette Mach3 because they sent me one free on my 18th birthday. Since then of course, I’ve spent a ton on blades. They do last really , really long though.

  9. What’s with all the sissies here with their multi-blade razors? :) Pure luxury, if you ask me. I’m a fan of the classic double-edged safety razor. $0.15 per blade and a better shave to boot.

    I guess in terms of a pure needs-wants assessment, a lot of things on the list are luxurious wants- you don’t need cable (or a television) at all, nor do you need a dishwasher or microwave or a cell phone, period. Would I give any of these things up? Not likely! But ultimately, we’re not discussing what’s a want and what’s a need, just the different degrees of wants.

    I always chuckle a little at people who “need” a new car. If you can’t get at least 15 years out of a car, you’re just not trying.

  10. As Rob pointed out, it’s not necessarily the razor – it’s the blades that get you. Ditto ink jet printers. Cheap printers, expensive ink.

    The iPhone and other smartphones may not be necessary for the Average Jim but I work in a profession (I’m a Realtor) where I’m not always “in the office” or near a computer so getting phone calls and e-mail wherever I am is a big plus. For whatever reason, people now expect service professionals to be able to respond within a ridiculously short period of time or they go to guy/gal # 2. Twitter and all the other “social” media and incumbent software to integrate all the social media status updates/tweets, etc. only exacerbate the situation.

    Do we “need” to be so connected? Do we really need a response within 5 minutes? No (as evidenced by your trip to London). But it has become a way of life. So as soon as my contract expires on my current [worthless] Motorola Q, I’ll be an iPhone-iac.

  11. Glenn Lasher says:

    @Jim: I wouldn’t, either, but everyone has their own style of doing things. If their use of the Internet is really casual, then it could be a good fit. Mine isn’t, hence the 22″ monitor in my case — one of the best investments I’ve ever made :)

    A very good friend of mine pointed out to me, though, that if I was considering a smartphone of any type (I’ll admit, after my last missive, that my work-issued Blackberry is sometimes handy) that I might instead consider a PDA with wireless Ethernet, and use it at any of the many hotspots that exist between my home and my office. He gets by doing exactly that.

    • jim says:

      @Glenn: Agreed, I have a Treo for that very reason and it’s definitely saved me a lot of money. A few months ago I was at an Orioles game when my friend Fred (One Project Closer) told me about a bug with Sitemeter (simple traffic monitor for those who may not be familiar with it) that caused all IE browsers to crash. That meant that all IE visitors to BFP were crashing… with the Treo I was able to login and take out the code, something that otherwise would’ve been impossible. I probably could’ve called a few friends to make the changes for me but the Treo made it easier.

  12. Patrick says:

    I think new cell phones and too many cable channels are both wastes of money. Most people buy phones that have tons of features and don’t even use them. They also buy phones that you would normally require a data plan and don’t get one. Also, the cable channels are usually the ones that cause us to buy so many channels. I wish they had an a la carte type deals where you could select channels you want and buy them individually.

  13. TStrump says:

    I have to admit, I love my vibrating shaver – it really does make shaving easier.
    Of course, I probably didn’t need it …
    I have a PDA phone, and I can’t believe how much more my cell bills are now. They easily doubled over the past ten years.
    I love having my PDA combined with the phone, though.
    But … I’m going to think twice about buying the iPhone.

  14. Greg says:

    Patrick: The barrier to a la carte cable is that the providers get paid to run channels like Home Shopping Network (which many of us would drop immediately).

  15. Markemmanuel says:

    I definitely didn’t need the cable. I was glad when I got rid of it. If I wanted to get ideas for improving my home, I can go to the library. The TV shows I want to see are replayed on the internet. The cable just consumed and wasted my time and money.

    Spending extra money on the stainless look is pretty useless. However, a lot of the appliances that has great problem solving solutions come in stainless steel as their default color now. Not everyone needs those features and buying features you don’t need is indeed a waste of money.

    Not only is the vibrating razor not a good value to me, razors with refillable heads is a waste of time. I found that the same razor in disposable form is cheaper than the refillable heads of my razor. Three blades definitely feels better when shaving but five is overkill.

    Smartphones aren’t needed but they sure are helpful. I’m tired of carrying an iPod, cell phone, camera, notbook based planner, and pieces of paper with notes in it. I’d like to consolidate that all so I can keep things simple and in one spot. Is it a need? No. Is it useful? Definitely.

    Most things in our life aren’t needs anyway, even the fridge. :-P

  16. Glenn Lasher says:

    @Jim: Heh. I would probably have never caught it — I use Firefox almost exclusively. However, if I had a problem with Firefox on one site or another, I do have IE at work and Konqueror at home to fall back on.

    @Greg: I have a compromise on cable à la carte: Cable co offers the most basic of basic packages, including all of the channels they are getting paid to run; then they add your picks to that for a nominal fee.

    My understanding, though, is that Dish stopped doing this because customers were tying up their CSRs while they hemmed and hawed about their decisions.

  17. katy says:

    ..When razors went from one blade to two, the incidence of cuts went down dramatically because the pressure per blade was halved…

    thank you – I have to try it now!

  18. Matt says:

    You watch 8 channels. We’re about the same. Trouble is, it’s not the same 8, and only one of our 8 is available over the air for free. To get the 8 you actually want, you have to take (and pay for) the hundreds you don’t.

    Oh, and the one free channel we watch regularly? About half the time, the programs we care about don’t record correctly because the start time was delayed by sports, so we end up having to buy them off iTunes anyway.

    I can’t say I see the appeal of vibrating razors either. The multi-blade models are in fact genuine improvements, although folks will disagree about just how valuable the improvement is. Ironically I’ve thought about teaching myself to shave with a straight razor, since the multi-blade cartridges are so bloody expensive. But single- (or dual-) blade safety razors are a huge pain to use, and even the seemingly insane prices of top-end Gilette multi-blade cartridges are a better value for me (since I can use one for a week before replacing it, whereas using single-blade disposables mean I’ve gone through at least two before I’ve finished shaving my whole face even once…they just clog too easily). $15 for a pack that lasts about a month is way cheaper than $3 for enough shaving to last a day, even if the $3 buys you two razors and the $15 buys you four blades.

    But $150 for a world-class straight razor that’ll shave me for a lifetime if I can ever learn to use it properly? Now THAT is an attractive proposition. :)

  19. Michael Campbell says:

    Why is the Fusion such a hot topic on financial frugality sites? It’s almost an obsession.

    One thing people fail to account for is the actual blade life. Vibration aside, those blades last a long, long time. It’s different for different people I’m sure, but for me the 5 bladed “blades” last more than 2.5x the cheapie disposable dual bladed things. WAY longer. Yes, I’ve actually recorded/timed this. Have you?

    And Mark (above me) …. well, my experience is much different. The razor works very well. Better than a Mach 3? Perhaps not, but certainly no worse (it does take some skill to operate =), and as I said I’m spending less over time on the blades.

    • jim says:

      I agree that multi-bladed razors last longer and are an improvement, but the vibration? C’mon…

      I shaved with a single razor while traveling in England a few weeks ago because I forgot to bring one, it wasn’t fun!

  20. AJ Kumar says:

    As much as I love the swiss army of phones, I might just give it up. Yes the internet is amazing, but paying an extra $30-40 a month just isn’t worth it. Plus there is GOOG411, a little more work and hassle, but it beats throwing away $360/year which can be used for many things.

  21. Chris says:

    Gillete spends literally hundreds of millions on marketing and R+D of their razors. I have to assume that is what drives the $1+ per blade price point.


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