Luxury vs. necessity: Are Americans confused?

Over the weekend, I found this interesting study from Pew Research on a blog I read. Survey respondents were asked to rate how necessary different household devices are to their lives and whether or not they consider them to be luxuries.

Respondents answered the question “Do you pretty much think of this as a necessity or pretty much think of it as a luxury you could do without” for the items on the right. I find the results shocking.

I wasn’t surprised to see that 86 percent of people consider their car to be a necessity. Depending on where you live, it can be pretty difficult to get around without a car. It’s sad to me that more communities haven’t embraced public transportation, but since I now live in one of them, I have to admit that our (one) car is pretty much a necessity for us. Without it, my husband wouldn’t be able to get to and from his job, which pays the rent and buys us groceries.

I was surprised, however, to see that more than half of respondents rated their home air conditioning and clothes dryer as a necessity. Really? Don’t get me wrong, I love air conditioning as much as the next person (especially now that I’m pregnant), but I also recognize that it’s one of the most decadent luxuries we enjoy in this country.

I’d say the same for my clothes dryer. Is line drying convenient? Not always. But it is something that everyone can do. And if you’re not willing to line dry, chances are you live near a laundromat.

I’m equally shocked that 47 percent of people think their cell phone is a necessity, 45 percent of people don’t think they couldn’t live without a microwave, 42 percent think their television is a necessity, and 21 percent even consider their dishwasher a necessity. And don’t even get me started on the 23 percent who think cable TV is a necessity or the 10 percent of people who can’t live without a flat screen TV. That is insanity.

These numbers show just how confused a lot of people in this country are when it comes to what they really need. I’d consider pretty much everything on this list a luxury. Do these things make life easier for us? Yes. By definition, that’s what luxuries do. They make life easier and more comfortable. But we don’t need them to survive.

It’s scary to think that so many people are confused about the difference between what’s necessary and what’s convenient. For necessities, we have no choice but to find a way to afford them. Things like food, clean drinking water, shelter, and medical care. But when you believe that things like air conditioning and clothes dryers and cable television are necessities, it’s harder to give up these luxuries when money is tight.

What do you think? Do you find this poll as shocking as I do?

Chart courtesy of Pew Research

24 thoughts on “Luxury vs. necessity: Are Americans confused?

  1. eemusings

    Why are dryers and dishwashers on that list, but not washing machines?

    Don’t get me wrong – I consider my washer a necessity, but I mean, we would survive without one. I’d have to learn to handwash all our clothes, but it wouldn’t kill me.

  2. Karen

    Good question. I’m not sure why it wasn’t included in the survey, but for whatever reason, they didn’t ask people to rate the washing machine.

  3. John

    Today where I live 102F. Overnight low temperature 76. It’s been like this for about a month, AC is necessary or I wouldn’t live here. I think you have a little Northerner Bias in your commentary.

  4. Karen

    I just moved to Indiana after living in North Carolina for 3 years. Temperatures easily reached 110 degrees this time of year. It’s not comfortable, but with fans and good air circulation, you would survive. You would not die.

    Indiana summers aren’t really a walk in the park, either. Average highs in July and August are 90-98 degrees. The fact remains that people lived for centuries without air conditioning. It is not necessary for survival.

  5. John

    Nothing on the entire list is “necessary for survival” and I don’t think that’s what necessity -vs- luxury means. I think they were trying to understand what people think are “needs” or what they could do without. My list goes like this car, ac, cell phone, dishwasher, microwave, home computer, high speed internet, clothes dryer, TV set, landline phone, flat screen, cable TV. How do you rank them? What would you purchase first?

  6. Karen

    It would make much more sense to me if this was a ranking of which of THESE items are most important. But they weren’t asked to rank these things by importance. The question asked, “Is this a necessity or is it a luxury that you COULD do without.” If given the choice, I would always WANT most of these things. Personally, I don’t own a microwave because I don’t want one, and I don’t pay for cable TV. But of course I WANT air conditioning, a cell phone, a dishwasher, all of it. But it’s not necessary.

    My point in the post is that by confusing these obvious luxuries with necessities, people are setting themselves up for making poor financial decisions when the budget is tight. If it was between buying groceries or paying a high electric bill for air conditioning, I would shut off the AC. People who consider air conditioning a necessity are more likely to leave it on even when they can’t afford it, and when the bill arrives and they can’t pay, they get into trouble.

    I disagree with you, and I find it troublesome that such a high percentage of people consider these things “necessities.” I think when you convince yourself that these luxuries are necessities, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.

  7. John

    “I disagree with you, and I find it troublesome that such a high percentage of people consider these things “necessities.” I think when you convince yourself that these luxuries are necessities, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.”

    Quite honestly I think that a car in todays American society is a necessity and in certain places, like where I live AC is also a necessity. Why? Because a decent job in middle America requires a car. You can dance around that issue all you want, but the basic answer is that if you want to be able to find and keep work you need a reliable car. I know plenty of people who have been hamstrung and lost jobs or opportunities because they did not have reliable transportation.

    Second AC, At 10pm it’s 91F/66F, no breeze, You can’t sleep in that or if you can you won’t sleep well and you won’t perform on the job in the morning. You need an Air Conditioner if you want to sleep and be useful in the morning. Not saying that you won’t survive if you are camping or in the tropics with a nice sea breeze, but real jobs demand a certain, not covered in sweat arrival, even starbucks. It’s been like this for a month and in Texas they’ve got another month coming.

    I view the items in the list as how much they would change my life if you took them away. Would I be able to continue with my current job? Live in my current house? I WANT all of them, but when certain items are removed, CAR and AC my life changes drastically. Whereas with others Cable TV, Landline phone my life does not change. So those things that cause high disruption for ME are items I consider necessities. For each person it is different and each location is also different. You only set yourself up for trouble when you don’t know what you could do without.

  8. Kaci

    I just found your blog a few weeks ago so this is my first time commenting. I agree with you that most of these items are not a a necessity except for the air conditioning one. In the space I live in I would literally be sick without air conditioning. My husband and I live in 358 square feet over a garage(thats not really well insulated)with one window and a screen door that can only be left open if it does not rain. When it was reaching in the high 90’s low 100’s here where we are earlier in the summer, our indoor temperature was 87 degrees. Trust me I am working on a very tight budget, and am as frugal as can be but that is one thing that my husband and I can not live with out or else we would be sick.

  9. ericka

    Oh it has been fun reading the comments today. I would have to say based on this list my nessecities are: car, landline phone, air conditioning, washing machine and cable. I would love to live in an area where I could walk everywhere or take public transportation. It just doesn’t happen in the suburbs. I am also have kids at home and I am going back to school so we need 2 cars. I could give up my cell phone in a heartbeat. My house gets so hot that if I didn’t have air conditioning I would be sick. You probably think cable is a luxury. We don’t go out much so we don’t spend much money on entertaining and we spend time together watching cable shows. We don’t watch much of the networks anymore. Now having said my list, we make sure we can afford to pay for all our needs.

  10. Jen@FrugalFreebiesandDeals

    I think the funniest one is not just the tv- but the 10% who believe it is a necessity to have a flat screen.

    I guess my big ones from the list are the home computer and highspeed internet- without those I would not be able to run my site, therefore losing income. But without- I guess I would just be doing something else.


    1. Karen

      Jen – That was actually my thought, too. My home computer and high speed Internet are necessary for me to work from home (since we moved back to Indiana I’ve been writing freelance). BUT. Then I realized that my local library does offer free computer access with high speed Internet. I would need to be much more organized, and it wouldn’t be nearly as convenient as working in my pajamas from home, but it would get the job done. So I can’t even really call that a necessity in my case.

  11. margot

    These comments are further illustration about how confused Americans are about luxuries versus necessities and how they then use this confusion to justify spending beyond their means or spending every cent they earn. There is NO circumstance in which air conditioning is a necessity. No one is arguing that it makes life easier and nicer and that it’s even connected to sleep and health for some people. But MOST of the world STILL lives without it. That includes places where people get sleep and go to work every day and live in even smaller homes than any of you with a dozen family members. Until recent decades, Americans didn’t have AC and they lived in climates that were just as hot and humid as where you live. A similar logic applies to just about everything else on this list.

    It’s amazing how adaptable we humans are. If you had to go without (or chose to go without) almost any item on this list, you’d be just fine. I’ve traveled around the world for a year with only a backpack, and after a few days, I didn’t miss the thousands of possessions I had in storage at home. I think I “need” my cell phone, but several years ago I didn’t have one, and if I got rid of my cell now, I’d adjust within a few weeks and then not having one would seem normal.

    One of the keys to building wealth is to realizing that we don’t need anything besides the most basic of items. Sure, 99% of us choose to have more, and that’s fine. But it’s liberating to realize that you can scale back and how much of it is optional.

  12. ericka

    I think people need to realize that everything is relative. To say

    “If you had to go without (or chose to go without) almost any item on this list, you’d be just fine.”

    I think it’s more correct to say YOU would be fine. That’s a generalization. People living without A/C can die of heat strokes and other illnesses. Not everyone can endure the same circumstances. I for one don’t want tlive without it but if I had to, I would be at every air conditioned place I could find. The library, grocery store, mall or movie theatre. I personally have tried to go without A/C and I become a very sick with headaches and very crabby.

    We could probably live without some of the things on the list above if we had to.

  13. John

    I *could* live without everything on the list, but I *would* not be “Living well” and that’s kind of the goal. To each their own, some no car, some no cable, some no anything, but to me living well means a few improvements over the minimum. “On less” means selecting those life improvements carefully. I won’t judge, but to say that each loves differently, fine by me.

  14. Laura

    Something I read on Jacobs Early Retirement Extreme blog which is very true;
    ‘Luxury is having a healthy and capable body that moves with ease’

    1. Karen

      Laura – I absolutely love that quote, and I agree! For me, living well has less to do with possessions and more to do with my health and mental well being. Thank you for sharing that!

  15. Ginny

    I guess the real question is “Is living WELL a necessity?” Or is just surviving the necessity? Obviously, we all have different definitions of the word.
    Personally, I think just surviving is a necessity, with basics like food, water, and shelter. That doesn’t mean you don’t strive to have more. To me, a “decent job” is not a necessity. A basic job is a necessity… one that pays just enough for food, water, and shelter. Anything better than that is fantastic, but I would call it a luxury. There are a LOT of people living in very poor hot countries with next to nothing (and with no air conditioning) and they survive.
    But just because we’re frugal, it doesn’t mean “luxury” should be a bad word.

    1. Karen

      Ginny – I don’t think luxury is a bad word. In fact, I admitted in my post that I LOVE air conditioning. I love my home computer and my high speed Internet. And yes, I work hard to make room in our budget for these things. But I still recognize that they are not necessities. They are luxuries. I have them only because I can afford them. My point is just that we need to recognize the difference between what’s necessary and what’s nice to have, otherwise it becomes hard to know what to give up when necessary.

      I also disagree with the idea that you need luxuries to live well. As I said before, living well to me is being content with what I have, being healthy, and taking care of myself and those I love.

  16. Becky P.

    I do think that all of these are a luxury –except the car in the typical American society–you need transportation if you plan on working.

    For me it would be in this order (priorities)…car, phone (of some kind), computer and internet access and washing machine. I don’t use my dryer now, nor do we have a tv. I can live without a dishwasher, satellite or cable, and could make do without a microwave, but it would be sad! :)

    Maybe part of my attitude is that I don’t live in the US. People exist without every single one of these, although often the very poor have cell phones here in Poland. They need to have contact with people somehow and they don’t have landlines. Here it doesn’t cost to receive a cell phone call, so you can have a cell phone with almost no cost if someone else gives it to you and someone else calls you!

    I’m curious who the target group was that was interviewed here. I’m amazed that more people think you need a clothes dryer than almost anything else! Amazing. I guess their mom didn’t line dry clothes. ;)

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  19. Krystal

    I agree that it makes things more convenient to have the things mentioned in the list, but they are absolutely not necessities. If I had to forgo certain things, I could easily give up almost everything and try hard to budget expenses for my car and cellphone (with internet).

    Regarding the A/C issue, I’ve lived through the humid Maryland summers as well as in a tropical third world country without the luxury of air conditioning and survived just fine. Sure, it gets hot and you get sweaty and sticky. It’s uncomfortable to say the least, but it can be done. It’s called a fan. :)

  20. Alexandra

    I think America is deeply confused about what a true need is. And it’s hard to blame us. We live in a very wealthy country (even if we don’t feel wealthy) and for most or all of us, have always had access to clean, safe-to-drink tap water, food and shelter of some kind. But it’s polls like this that make me nuts when you compare it to ‘health care as a need’. So many people in America seem to think of health care is a luxury, something you need to have money for, and that makes me sad. We all have clean water due to taxes, why not health care? (I mean, yes, I get it – the answer is because it is very expensive). But I do think the conversation would be different if we really understood, as a nation, what human needs are at a base level and that really anything outside shelter, clean drinking water, food, basic clothing IS a luxury. Hopefully over time we will evolve into that conversation…..

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