What do we really need?

The first of January is usually my favorite time.
I love reviewing the just-passed year, looking for things to improve, savoring special moments and putting away fears and mistakes that belong now to the past. And making plans. But this year feels different to me.
I'm still excited about the chance to start over. But I can't shake off the last 12 months and the anxieties that have settled over everything like a fine dust.
Our troubles, small and large, are almost too numerous to list: an uncertain economy, the threat of terrorism, a proposed war that a third of our citizens don't support, a budget crisis at every level of government and an unemployment rate that may not have peaked.
In the face of such uncertainty, how can we go about making our small plans? How can we assure ourselves that the future will exist and that our planning will matter?
You know the answer as well as I do: We can't. And yet, of course, we must, because not planning for the future is another way of endangering it. Our plans, potentially futile as they may be, give us the structure and hope to move forward.
If you are looking for work, your plans are probably on hold. Bills may be piling up, along with social obligations and even routine duties like going to the dentist or the eye doctor. So much depends on that paycheck! Perhaps too much depends on the paycheck.
Needs and wants
It doesn't take much financial savvy to know that we Americans spend a lot of money on things we don't need. But it takes enormous personal honesty to redefine the word need in our own lives.
Some of the things my job-seeking clients have told me they need in their lives -- which is why they are waiting for a job with a big enough paycheck -- include private education for their children, homes with large yards, memberships to health clubs, cable television, meals in restaurants, late-model cars and multiple storage units for furniture that no longer fits in the house.
Even my clients of modest means "need" things like new books, movies and other forms of entertainment, as well as frozen dinners that save time and weekly pizza deliveries that make peace in the household.
And I do, too.
If it sounds like I'm judging other people's use of money, then I'm not being clear. My point is that we have lost track of our money and don't seem to know anymore what we really need.
I gasped last week when I read that Sarah Susanka, architect and author of "The Not So Big House," was selling the home in St. Paul, Minn., that inspired her book and a national architectural movement toward smaller living spaces.
The gasp wasn't for the price, but for the size of the house. Having never read the book, I had assumed she and I had the same definition of "not so big." But at 2,400 square feet, I would estimate that Susanka's house is larger than the homes of most of the world's population.
Sure, it's smaller than the truly gigantic homes we see sprouting on the shores of lakes these days. But why are we using those homes as the measuring stick when so many of our people have no place at all to sleep?
The trade-offs
So I wonder. How much do we truly need? If we needed less, could we take lesser-paying jobs and not feel as if we were compromising?
If we took lesser-paying jobs, could we stay in our own neighborhoods and take the bus or walk instead of needing a car for every member of the family? If we walked to work, would the rise in gas prices be easier to bear? Would we be more likely to form friendships in our neighborhoods and less likely to move so frequently for a "better" neighborhood?
If you are unemployed, with no money at all coming in, this may seem like an esoteric line of thought. You don't have the privilege of deciding how to spend money you don't have. But you do -- always -- have the opportunity to start over.
XAmy Lindgren, the owner of a career-consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn., can be reached at alindgren@pioneerpress.com.

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