Last-Minute Splurges: Why You Can't Resist

Mary Matthews lives on a tight budget. But the Florida woman lets her frugality fall by the wayside when she spots an alluring shade of lipstick or a fun coffee mug.

"The small purchases make up for not being able to spend money on more expensive items," Matthews wrote in an e-mail to

The recession, to be sure, has turned more Americans into penny-pinchers: in April, the country's personal savings rate rose to 5.7 percent, the highest since 1995.

Yet, even in these cash-strapped times, some like Matthews are still finding dollars to spend on "impulse buys" -- last-minute, unplanned purchases that sometimes border on frivolity.

Consumers told that they were splurging on everything from small items like balls of yarn and books to bigger-ticket buys, like flat-screen TVs and even motorcycles.

Dramatic discounts offered by retailers today are likely part of what's motivating recent splurges, said Dr. April Lane Benson, a psychologist and the author of "To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop."

"The sales are so amazing that it is just such a trigger for people to buy," Benson said. "That they forget about whether they really need this thing and whether they can afford regardless of how cheap it is, how they're going to pay for it, and where they're going to put it."

And while women are more typically thought of as the shopping sex, men are splurging too.

Take, for instance, Jimmy O'Donnell, of Hot Springs Village, Ark. His weakness is golf equipment.

"I can't pass up a good deal on a new golf club, whether it's a pitching wedge or a new putter," O'Donnell said in message to "As for whether I ever regret spending the money I don't really have for such a frivolous purchase, you'll have to ask me tomorrow depending on my golf score today, and most importantly, don't tell my wife!"

Check-Out Aisle Temptation

Retailers are well aware of some peoples' yen for unplanned purchases. That's why so many stores -- particularly discount retailers and grocery chains -- line their check-out aisles with goods that shoppers may be tempted to buy on the way out: candy, drinks, gum, magazines, batteries, small packets of tissues, and so on. At department stores and boutiques, inexpensive jewelry and other accessories near the register serve the same purpose.

"It's a question of trying to get everybody's last buck," said Lynn Switanowski, the president of Creative Business Consulting Group in Boston.

Generally, retailers are seeing fewer customers walking through their doors and spending less once they're their inside. The mindset, Switanowski said, is: "Now, I've got to really make hay when the sun shines and I've got to get them to buy anything I can when they're there."

But even retailers that aren't struggling see the value of impulse buys. That's why discount giant Wal-Mart, which has seen sales rise during the recession, stocks items like hand sanitizer and pens at its check-out lanes, said spokesman John Simley.

"There are a lot of things that are necessary to make a good shopping experience and that's one of them because of its practicality," Simley said.

Generally, products that retailers use to target impulse buyers share a few basic traits: they will be relatively inexpensive, they will be small -- as in, easy to squeeze into your bulging shopping cart or just hold in your hand -- and they won't be complicated.

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