When my wife and I moved to New York from the relative comfort of Southwest Virginia, we were optimistic about our job prospects. She had a verbal promise of employment from a major cosmetics company, and I had a placement coordinator who was very excited about my options. However, her cosmetics job evaporated, my coordinator disappeared, the movers cheated us, etc., etc. Bottom line, we soon found ourselves counting pennies and scrambling for employment. We landed on our feet, but there were a few scary months in which we got behind on the bills and found ourselves questioning our decisions, our move to New York, and even our sanity. In the process, I learned a little bit about the hierarchy of needs.
I was already familiar with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which organizes human growth according to needs, with food and air at the bottom and morality at the top. However, as my wife and I were watching our resources dwindle, most of Maslow's higher needs went straight out the window. I'm not saying that I don't place a high price on morality. I'm just saying that when my family is hungry my morality goes on sale.
After I dispensed with Maslow, I developed the following hierarchy of needs. If you find yourself out of work and watching pennies, this little list might be of some use:
Physiological needs: Food, water, air, shelter. Luckily, air is usually free. For the other three, though, there is a lot of leeway. To put it bluntly, food is a need; fillet mignon isn't. If you're looking down the barrel of poverty, cut back on eating out and consider foods that are less expensive. Salmon steaks are out and hamburger is in.
Similarly, you might consider where you're living. Do you need to have a den? Is that extra bedroom really vital? How about the basement -- how often do you use it? This is a good time to consider whether or not your possessions are all necessary, and calculate how much cheaper your rent (or mortgage payment) would be if you weeded them out.
Logistical needs: Things like transportation, health insurance, and renter's/homeowner's insurance fall under this category. These are things that you can play with a little bit. You need transportation to work, but you might not need an SUV. Look into public transportation, bicycles, and used cars. Similarly, if you're really poor, you might see if you qualify for Medicaid and other programs. Also, review your insurance policies and consider whether or not you're likely to need all the services that you're paying for.
Entertainment needs: I would argue that we all need entertainment from time to time. However, this does not mean that we necessarily need to go to the movies every week or buy a lot of books or go on expensive vacations. Instead of going to the movies, try Netflix or see if your local library rents movies. Instead of buying books, go back to the library and check out the stacks. Put off your big vacation until you can afford it; in the meantime, take your family to the park or find something fun that's a little closer to home.
During our season of misery, my wife and I learned that many of the "needs" that we pursued fit under the heading of "wants." We wanted a perfect credit rating, or a car, or expensive food. We didn't, however, need these things. Differentiating between what we wanted and what we needed not only helped us save a lot of money, but it made us feel a lot better about our situation. Even at the worst, we were able to put food on the table, keep a roof over our heads, pay the water and electric bills, and spend time with each other. At the end of the day, that's not too bad.
Bruce Watson is a former English instructor, sometime writer, and all-around cheapskate. A co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, his work has appeared in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, The Roanoker, The Brush Mountain Review, The Eccentric Monthly, The Best of Times, and College Daze. He currently blogs on Crankster.