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Clark Howard: The hands-off approach to saving

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  • Research says if you touch an item in a store, you are more likely to overpay for it
  • People form emotional attachments with merchandise
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By Clark Howard
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "You break it, you buy it..."

Clark Howard says shoppers may save money if they keep their hands off the merchandise.

Clark Howard says shoppers may save money if they keep their hands off the merchandise.

"Look, but don't touch..."

"Keep your hands to yourself..."

Three tired platitudes you might hear in the world of retail that all suggest a direct connection between the power of touch and the act of buying something.

Now a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms what many have long believed, when you touch something in a store, you feel a sense of ownership and you're more likely to overpay for that item.

That's why retailers like Apple always encourage you to play with the merchandise.

First and foremost, the Journal of Consumer Research study presents a real caveat emptor for your wallet during a recession. And second, it confirms that I have the reading habits of a really dull guy! Video Hear a few interesting tips for saving money at the grocery store »

The warning for you is that if you don't want to spend money, don't go out and handle the merchandise. Whenever I shop at Costco Wholesale, I never get a cart. I only buy what I can carry in my two arms. Once my arms are full, I'm not constantly picking up new items along the way to the register.

You'd be surprised how you can cut down on your bill using this simple trick.

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But there's a further caution in the study. Even window shopping or browsing online can prove dangerous for your budget.

The study's authors talk about the power of visualization. They suggest that if e-tailers can get you to picture yourself owning something -- even if you really can't afford it -- they have a better chance of converting you into an online sale.

The question of why people spend money in ways that don't make sense is one that's addressed by behavioral economics. It's a field of study that used to be discredited in serious academic circles. But now it's proving to be an important discipline as people look for new ways to save more and spend less.

A 2008 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that about 1 in 16 Americans -- that's some 6 percent of us -- have compulsive spending habits. This kind of behavior leads to a momentary rush of adrenaline, but afterward comes the financial hangover.

Christa, my radio show's executive producer, has done a lot in her life to take control of her wayward spending habits. She believes that if you're always buying new clothes, for example, you disrespect the things you already have in your closet. When the shopping bug bites you, try paying attention to the stuff you've already acquired in your life.

Speaking of closets, I once owned a house built in 1937. The master bedroom's sole closet was all of 2 x 1.5 feet in dimension! During those Great Depression years, that was big enough for a middle-class husband and wife.

Today, a closet of that size would never work. Some people have so much clothing that they can go for months without wearing the same thing.

So the best way to tackle compulsive spending is with shock therapy -- you've got to ban yourself from stores!

Let's say you're prone to go on a shopping binge when you feel blue. You've got to make sure you don't even get into the car to go to the store or the mall. Go for a walk or go to the park if it's a nice day. If you have a conditioned response that's bad for you, you've got to work to change it.


And the next time you're tempted to pick something up while shopping, remember the study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Or if that's too pointy-headed for you, just start humming the refrain from that old song by the Georgia Satellites: "Don't hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself!"

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