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Cheap thrills come at a real price

Why are Americans addicted to the lure of low-priced goods?

Illustration By Michelle Christensen, Deseret News

Confess.

Do you have clothes in your closet you've never worn but bought because the price was good?

What about $5 movies from Walmart? Do you have a stack next to your television? And how often have you watched them?

No matter how disciplined you think you are, research shows that we as Americans love the idea of a good deal.

It's something that easily lures us in, even in this economy, when spending is down and savings rates are up, according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, an author and professor at Boston University.

"You get your juices going about getting great deals, and you get distracted from the actual product," said Shell. "It is easy for most of us to become distracted by the shiny bobble of low price."

Shell recently wrote a book titled "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture" that analyzes the history of pricing in America and how the pursuit of bargains and "cheap" stuff is not the best consumer or economic strategy.

The book has been criticized and applauded. For Shell, one of the purposes behind her book is to make Americans more aware how society has over-emphasized price, rather than the actual value of a product.

She wants us to be smarter shoppers. Look for deals, but make sure the deals are on quality items. Don't buy something cheap that will break down after a few uses.

"Rely on your own good sense, and remember what your grandmother and grandfather said: You get what you pay for," Shell said during a recent phone conversation.

But it's still not easy.

There are about 18 million Americans who would consider themselves shopaholics, according to psychologist April Lane Benson.

And for the rest of society, there is still a psychological thrill that comes from buying.

"I've known stories of people in my experience who have maxed out every card they have ever owned and are losing their home, and in the end, it's not the thing they're buying," said University of Utah sociologist Theresa Martinez.

"It almost has nothing to do with the thing. It's because of the way the shopping process makes them feel."

For shopaholics, the urge to spend is often tied to a need to fill some sort of void in their life, according to Martinez.

One "void" could be a lack of hope, while another reason could be to compensate for being dissatisfied with your life. Other reasons include stress, a lack of joy, the desire to uphold a certain image and the need to feel in control.

Consider the movie "Confessions of a Shopaholic." In the film, the main character is addicted to shopping, even though she has no money. For the character, shopping makes her feel better about her life, said Martinez.

"Shopping is like a drug," Martinez said. "Just like someone uses heroine or cocaine, some people shop. It becomes just like alcohol. It can be very addictive, shopping."

And the ramifications of over-shopping can be costly.

While some people have used the current economic situation to help rein in their shopping habits, others are on the verge of losing most of their material possessions, according to Benson.

"Some compulsive buyers have told me they feel more ashamed of their habits now, because they're losing their houses and cars, and they are still shopping," she said. "It's like Nero fiddling while Rome is burning."

Benson encourages people, no matter if they think they're addicted to shopping or not, to assess their spending habits. Some questions to ask include:

Do you have a problem with over-shopping?

Why?

When are you most vulnerable to buying something you don't need?

"When you realize it's a problem you really need to deal with, consciousness is exceptionally important," Benson said. "Face the fact you're doing it, and try to isolate the moment that you first notice the impulse, and try to look at what's going on inside of you."

For Cecilia "Cece" Mitchell, senior vice president and manager of Zions Bank Women's Financial Group, discipline is one of the best tools a person can have when shopping.

She advises people to first learn what they are spending and where, and then cut back in areas they can.

In her opinion, groceries and clothes are some of people's largest spending traps, because it's easy to become sidetracked by deals or products that are desired but not really needed.

"It's the little things that add up quickly," said Mitchell, who advises women business owners about smart money management.

When grocery shopping, Mitchell encourages people to make a list and then only carry cash if they need to. Other tips include communicating with family members and other loved ones about budget goals.

"Just like everyone else, we need to be careful with our money, where we spend it and how we spend it," Mitchell said.

"It is a commodity. We all know it can go away. It's not a renewable source. It's not like the wind, where it will be there all the time. We do have to take care of it."

For more information about budgeting and to download a free budgeting tool, log on to: www.zionsbank.com/ezbudget.

Benson also has a Web site where you can learn about how to overcome compulsive shopping behaviors at www.stoppingovershopping.com.

e-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com