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updated 7/31/2006 10:34:20 AM ET 2006-07-31T14:34:20

What is it about a sale? What makes that pair of shoes or skirt or barbecue grill that you wouldn't have given a second look at full price suddenly irresistible when it's 15 or 25 or — ohmygoodness! — 50 percent off?

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Don't fret. You're not the only one who can't resist. A new study from The Boston Consulting Group conducted by Harris Interactive confirms that the search for good quality stuff at bottom-of-the-barrel prices is as American as baseball and apple pie.

But there are two sides to this coin. Half of Americans surveyed say that they are able to enjoy a higher standard of living because they're savvier shoppers — on average, they say they save more than 20 percent of their discretionary budgets by looking for values. According to the new book "Treasure Hunt," by Michael J. Silverstein, Americans save $100 billion annually by shopping with their eyes open.

Still, just as many admit that they buy things they don't need just because they're on sale. Three-quarters of Americans have purchased something they didn't need at the time just because the price was right.

Why do we do it? Because it makes us feel good. Making a purchase gives us the same sort of emotional jolt as eating a piece of chocolate or falling in love. Three-quarters of Americans say "it makes me happy" when they buy something that's a good value. It also makes us feel intelligent (they call them "smart shoppers" for a reason). And it gives us bragging rights. More than 9 out of 10 Americans say they tell people about getting a good deal (including how much they paid) when they buy something special to wear or for their home.

Unfortunately, all that happiness may not do us any long-term good. Four out of 10 people told the surveyors that when they buy something on sale "it feels like I'm putting money into savings." That frame of mind can be incredibly damaging to your long-term financial health. Say you buy a $79 item (on sale of course) once a month on average. What if you skipped that little splurge and invested the money to earn an 8 percent return instead?

If you skip a $79 splurge:
1 Year: $1,069
5 Years: $5,922
10 Years: $14,628
20 Years: $46,921
30 Years: $118,602

In other words, at 10 years you could buy a small car, at 20 pay for a year at just about any college in the country, at 30 maybe even pay off your mortgage before you retire. So how do you walk this fine line — grabbing some emotional satisfaction, some good stuff while still securing your financial future?

Remember, there's always another sale. Take a look around most stores. We learned to be attracted to discounts because discounts (like diamonds, for instance) were rarities. No more. Today, you get 10 to 20 percent off for signing up for the store credit card. Annual sales have become monthly sales. Some stores have permanent sales racks (usually located in the back right hand corner) or permanent sales buttons on their Web sites. Becoming cognizant of this fact can take some of the fun and excitement out of the process and make you a more rational shopper.

Take a break. Manhattan Psychologist April Benson, who runs a Web site called stoppingovershopping.com, says that often you just need to put a little distance between yourself and the cash register to figure out if this is a transaction you really want to complete or if you're simply succumbing to the moment. So, put the item on hold and walk away for a few minutes. If you're shopping online, walk away from your computer. Even a half hour can give you the perspective you need.

Are you spending to save or spending because you need it? Ask yourself why you're about to hand your credit card over to the cashier. Was this an item you went specifically looking for or are you shopping on impulse. Try to always have a couple of longer term, larger financial goals (a new house, a great vacation) so that you can give yourself a reason not to make the smaller buy. Also, if you can't answer the question: What will I do with this (where will I put it) if I buy it, it's not something you should be spending any money at all on.

Save all your receipts. It's very difficult to avoid the purchase all of the time. Saving your receipts gives you a do-over. It'll cost you some time, but most Americans have made a purchase they regret over the past six months. If you have that little slip of paper, you can retrace your steps and take it back.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.

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