A PhD is pretty financially trying, so it’s important to work out exactly what you need to buy, and what can wait. Sometimes what you need is clear – a computer, for instance. Other times, it’s a little less opaque; maybe a big whiteboard for your to-do lists would help you stay productive and motivated. But you don’t buy it, because you think “oh no, I don’t need that”, because you can get it done without it… but it harms your productivity because you don’t stay focused and you forget to do things you would have remembered with that big, shiny whiteboard. In that case, your “want” is really a need.

I had this realization a few days ago. I started trawling through the literature and printing off articles that I found… with one major problem. My printer didn’t do double sided printing automatically, and it’s a waste to print single sided. It gave me a stupid little pop-up window that prevented me from doing anything else while my slow, non-page-flipping printer did it’s thing. It was a time drain, and it was a stress builder.

So I looked up printers. I found a fast one that could double side. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t too dear either. Bingo. My black ink was running low at that point, so I printed a few more things until it ran out and then off I went to get my new printer.

I brought home my shiny new baby, set it up, and then… I could print AND continue trawling through the literature, or reading something I’d previously printed. The opportunities are endless!


Getting a nice, fast, double-sided printing printer was not an absolute necessity. I could have put up with what I had. But it was killing my productivity and frustrating the hell out of me. So my “want” became a “need” in the sense that I did need it to do my best work. Plus, I can sell the other one to an undergraduate who doesn’t print as often as I do.

After my little realization, I had a longer think about the things I wanted and needed, and ultimately came up with three categories that all of my new-year purchases fit into. I think it’s pretty applicable to anyone in university of any kind, so here you go:

  1. Absolute needs – pens, notebooks, highlighters, pencils, erasers. With these you could sit in front of a university computer and get the job done. It’s the bare minimum you need.
  2. Wants that are also needs – your own laptop, a decent printer, a good desk lamp if your workspace is poorly lit, a supportive chair that you’ll be comfortable in on long days, a nice coffee mug, a big water bottle. Things that you could escape without, but you’d be doing it rough.
  3. Wants that you absolutely don’t need – kitchen gadgets that claim to make it easier for you to prepare meals but really you could have used a saucepan with no added difficulty, a new set of headphones for listening to “focus music”, an espresso machine, a new quilt. You get the idea.

Another thing is, the “wants that you need” are going to be a little different for everyone. For example, at the start of the year I bought a plain notebook and started keeping a Bullet Journal, a creative way of keeping a diary where you draw all the pages up yourself.

It’s not something that would be important for everyone, but for me it’s the best way to keep a diary because the creativity keeps me coming back to it. Plus it’s a great way to keep track of the things that are important to me, like books to read.

You’re also allowed to buy what you want but absolutely don’t need, you just have to think about whether it fits into your current budget and saving plans a bit more. Sometimes you need to be a bit hard on yourself, and sometimes you’ll still make mistakes. The most important thing is putting your needs of both kinds first.


I’m also not going to claim that I’ve never bought something that was totally non-essential. I impulse bought an espresso machine after reading The Happiness Project which encourages one to “spend money on things that further their happiness”, a philosophy I could get behind.

Espresso patrounum!

Essentially the whole point I’m trying to make here is that you need to look at the things you want, and work out which of those you actually kinda need to be the most productive version of yourself that you could be. Pencil those into your budget immediately. Decide how much (minimum) you want to save each week and stick to it, buy your needs, and put whatever’s left towards your wants. It’s logical when you think about it, and coming out of university with actual savings is essential in case a job doesn’t come right away.

What are the things that help you enhance your productivity and happiness, even though they aren’t entirely essential? What have you bought that you wanted? Did you regret it, or were you like me with my coffee machine and instantly in love?