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Think again! Stop spending money you don’t have

In these uncertain economic times, airlines and the financial industry are cutting back, but are you? TODAY Financial editor Jean Chatzky explains how to cut back on your spending.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Cutting back is what we've been hearing about over the last few months. Airline companies and the financial industry are doing it, but are you?

There’s a good chance that you've made a few changes to your budget to accommodate the high price of gas. Perhaps you've cut back to one cup of coffee instead of two, or limited takeout to once a week. While these are certainly steps in the right direction, it's likely not enough.

The fact is, despite the state of our economy, we're still heading to the stores. Retail sales for May, which were released earlier this month, were largely better than expected. This is good for the economy and good for the stock market, but bad for your wallet, particularly if you've been making your purchases with a credit card.

So why do we keep spending when we know we can't afford it? For one, it's easy.

"There is limitless choice out there, and even stuck at your desk at work, you can now shop because you have the Internet right in front of you," says Rob Walker, a former colleague of mine and author of "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are."

But shopping also makes us feel good. The moment of acquisition, and everything leading up to it, is very exciting. You're searching for something that's just right, plunking your money — or in many cases, your credit card — down on the counter, making it yours once and for all. After that point, things usually go downhill. You use the item once or twice and before you know it, it's old news, just like everything else you've stuffed in your closet over the years.

Here's how to stop, or at the very least, slow the cycle once and for all:

Don’t cut, cut back
Shopping is habit-forming, and after a while, picking up a few new things each week becomes a given, rather than a luxury. You feel entitled to spend, rationalizing it by telling yourself that you've had a long day and need a new DVD, or that your current wardrobe just won't cut it for the event you have coming up.

"Set limitations for yourself. Shopping can be a treat on a special occasion, but if you do it every day, it loses its meaning," says Mary Carlomagno, founder of Order, a company that specializes in clutter control and shopping addictions. Start by cutting your trips to the mall or the time you spend shopping online in half, and then slowly cut back a little more until you're down to once or twice a month, tops.

Most of us walk through life spending our money on things we know we want, but we don't ever take the time to understand why. If you take a minute to really stop and think about what you're about to purchase, you might surprise yourself by turning around and walking back out the door.

"What I've been doing is walking around the store with whatever it is I'm thinking about buying. I like to use that time to either talk myself into it, or out of it. You have to distinguish between shopping and buying, because you don't need to buy on every shopping trip," says Carlomagno.

Stick to the classics
I know, we all want to be trendy. I'll admit to bringing home the latest handbag or coat and then tossing it in the back of my closet less than a year later. We've all done it, but unless you're Paris Hilton, chasing every season's hottest trend will land you in a boatload of debt within a year.

"You can still take part, just do it in a smaller way," advises Carlomagno. "For instance, instead of buying an animal-print dress, maybe you buy a scarf." Then fill in the rest of your wardrobe with staples, things that you can wear year after year without having to worry that they're going to go out of style.

Don’t be a marketing victim
Remember the LiveStrong wristbands? They were launched a few years ago by the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise money for cancer. There was a limited quantity available, and it got to a point when people where buying the $1 bracelet on eBay for $10, with none of their money going to the cause. The fact is, marketers know how to get in our heads; we want what we can't have.

"It's something you can talk about, a conversation piece, and you're hoping that someone will notice. It's pretty easy to get caught up in that," says Walker. These days, marketing is even more aggressive, so you really have to be on top of your game. I would venture to say that the majority of those yellow wristbands have since been tossed aside to make way for the latest big thing.

Treat yourself
If you’re a serious shopper, you're going to have to fill the void with something else in order to stay on track. Just because you can't visit the mall doesn't mean you can't reward yourself in other ways.

Give yourself a pedicure, spend some time in the gym or join some friends for a bowling game. There are countless cheap or even free things to fill your time, particularly now that it's summer and the weather is perfect for barbecues, trips to the pool and long walks.

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 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .