A person standing in front of a brick building

Want What You Have, Buy What You Need

Years ago, I read in The New York Times that according to Yankelovich Research, the average American adult is the target of some 3,500 commercial ads in a single day. More recently that estimate has been adjusted upward to 5,000. How outrageous is that? Sure, we live in a highly commercialized society but 5,o00 commercial ads? In a single day? I figured that had to be a gross exaggeration.

A person standing in front of a brick building

I decided to conduct my own test. I would count the ads I heard or saw in my typical day. I knew it wouldn’t come anywhere close to 5,o00. Or even 3,500.

The next morning the radio alarm sounded and before I could even open my eyes, I needed to put two hash marks on my score pad. So prolific were the ads on television I could barely keep an accurate count and get ready for the day at the same time.

Of course, I had to count every message, banner, business placard, real estate sign, billboard, license plate frame, bumper sticker, commercial vehicle, and bus I saw on the way to work all the while being careful not to miss any radio ads. Good thing I wasn’t driving.

Reading the newspaper boosted my count significantly as did flipping through a few magazines. Have you ever counted the ads in a typical magazine? Try it sometime.

Logging onto the Internet shot my count through the roof. The mail arrived at 10:00 a.m., and that’s when I surrendered. Not only was it impossible to get anything done while counting the commercial influences on my fairly low-key, ho-hum kind of a day, but I also couldn’t keep up with the pace. It was a mind-boggling exercise.

Five thousand ads per adult per day? Easy! In fact, I’ll bet, that in reality, it’s a lot more than that.

I recalled that day recently when I got an email message from Barbara, one of my loyal readers:

How can I overcome the feeling of wanting something I just can’t have, a new house, or a car? I often feel discouraged and angry at myself, instead of feeling joy and being grateful for what I have.

Before I reached the last word of her note, I was identifying with her. I know that feeling—I am so familiar with wanting and being constantly dissatisfied.

The answer and antidote to that nagging feeling of dissatisfaction is to find contentment. But how can we do that? I’ve discovered the truth in these eight little words:

Want what I have, buy what I need

Sounds simple enough, but achieving that can be a challenge. Here’s my advice to Barbara, and all others who have become over-commercialized to the point of being constantly dissatisfied:

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I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth: You have complete control over your thoughts. You can choose to think about what you don’t have or be grateful for what you do have.

Write down the top ten things for which you are grateful. Be honest, thoughtful. Then choose to think about those things.

Determine to love your home. Be kind to it. Clean it, adore it, make it a place where you feel accepted for who you are. Be grateful that you even have a place you can call home then let it fill you with contentment.


When, with genuine gratitude you choose to want what you have, you build a layer of insulation around your life that will protect you from the harshness of over-commercialization.

Reading the fine print, analyzing what clearly is too-good-to-be-true, and questioning outrageous commercial messages are also good ways to increase that protective layer of insulation that will allow you to find contentment.


If you are easily dissatisfied or prone to impulsive behaviors, identify your weak spots then isolate yourself from them. Turn off the television. Skip past the magazine ads. Isolate yourself from mindless shopping. Throw mail-order catalogs in the trash unopened (and I mean the smelly trash so you won’t be tempted to retrieve them). Put distance between you and places you are most likely to slip back into your old ways of spending beyond your money before you have earned it. Let yourself know that you’re not entitled to live beyond your means


Confronting yourself is a great way to build your strength against the strong current of temptation to spend beyond your ability to pay. Ask yourself these questions and then expect honest answers:

  • Do I need this?
  • Don’t I have something already that will do just as well?
  • Am I sure this is a good value?
  • Do I have the cash to pay for it?
  • Could I delay the purchase for a few weeks?
  • Am I willing to sit on my decision for 24 hours before acting?

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Never feel you must apologize for choosing the high road when it comes to managing well the money that flows into your life. If you’re embarrassed to say, “I can’t afford it,” say instead, “I just don’t choose to spend my money that way.”

Living below your means creates a margin between you and the financial edge.

Living below your means is the way to build wealth, reduce stress, and increase options.

Living below your means increases peace of mind.

Living below your means is an honorable way to conduct your life.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is the secret to contentment—that wonderful serene place where we find satisfaction and joy in choosing to enjoy what we have, not what others have or make us believe we should have.

Immerse yourself in gratitude today and every day!

Today’s post first published: 7-13-15; Updated and expanded: 11-16-19

More from Mary's Everyday Cheapskate

man holding US cash in his hands
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A stack of currency chained together and padlocked. Used for any money inference where money is tight or protected.
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  1. Linda says:

    Having spent most of my adult life with barely enough income to pay major bills, much less groceries or clothing, I learned early on to say “no” to almost everything. At this point in time I can finally splurge a little but even now I tend to make my purchases items that have lasting value. Things that will bring me pleasure for years rather than moments or hours.

  2. Marlene D'Aboy says:

    I have a saying that I go by “Do I want it, or do I need it?” Always works for me. Also for long term items that I need I say, “Anything worth having, is worth waiting for”.

  3. Jeanne says:

    Yesterday I worked for nearly 3 hours at our local food shelf. I was outside with a long line of clients, chatting with folks and serving as a sort-of gatekeeper. Many, if not most, were not dressed nearly warm enough for the cloudy, windy day; some waited in line an hour or more. There was, thankfully, food enough for all to get some. My point in this is that there is nothing like seeing people in REAL need to remind me the difference between true needs and merely wants

  4. Cheryl says:

    I haven’t watched ANY television for ten years. I watched very little before that. I have ALWAYS ignored the commercials. I thought they might be cute but they didn’t put DESIRE in my heart. I IGNORE the ads on my computer. I don’t notice magazine ads. I look at them. I am in the fashion business and I need to be aware of trends. I have ZERO desire for the items advertised. I listen to the radio for a couple of hours during the day. I hear advertisements, again, NO desire to go out and BUY BUY BUY. I think a person just has to have the mind-set…. I HAVE what I NEED. WHY purchase STUFF? It’s just……………..STUFF 🙁 If you gave me a million dollars tomorrow. I would NOT go out and BUY STUFF…. I would pay my debt and donate ALOT to my local animal shelter who DOES NEED STUFF 🙂 Probably re-do a few things about the home and property but I don’t NEED anything. I would take a couple of trips that have been beyond my budget. I am a VERY content person 🙂 It’s important….to be CONTENT and HAPPY with your life. I have goals, personal and for my business, but I am also CONTENT-NOW 🙂

  5. Gehugh says:

    Growing up in an advertising family taught me lessons in frugality early. Try reading Muddling Through Frugality by Johnson if you can take your eyes off the screens. It’s an oldie but a goodie.

  6. Mary says:

    I keep the following quote
    “Wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants” Esther De Waal

  7. Lelia Pray Newlan Carlson says:

    Richard has the right idea. I record everything on the TV that I watch. Should I actually have time to sit down & watch it while it’s in real time, I merely mute all commercials and read a book or take a break, then unmute when the show returns. When I’m watching a show from the recording, I merely fat forward through the commercials. I stopped delivery of my newspaper because of the ads. I realized a long time ago that when I went through the ads from the paper or ever flyers that come through the mail, all at once I “needed” some of the things advertised. Now, if I actually need something, I write it down and I even surprise myself because when I’m ready to shop, I find that I really don’t “need” some of the things I wrote down. Works for me.

  8. Richard says:

    Between the mute button on the TV remote and the delete button on the computer, I can ignore almost all advertising that is inflicted upon me. Anyone buying anything due to advertising is showing a lack of discretion. The last part of the title says it all, buy only what you need. You decide!

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