June 17, 2009— -- 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 ABCNews.com.
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 ABCNews.com 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 ABCNews.com. "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.
Such products "don't need a lot of explaining," said business consultant Switanowski. "It sells itself (because) you understand what it does."
Retailers have changed their impulse buy offerings to adapt to changing times. Switanowski said that panty hose once were a fixture near department store registers, but as more women said "no" to hose, they were moved out of impulse buy territory and into more far-flung parts of the stores.
Meanwhile, as hand sanitizer grew in popularity -- years before this year's swine flu pandemic -- bottles of the germ-killing concoctions began staking their own claims near grocery store check-out aisles.
Most recently, more retailers are stocking check-out lanes with inspirational items like bookmarks with uplifting sayings because recession-weary consumers are looking for products that will make them feel good "for more than just a minute," Switanowski said.
Where do consumers make the most impulse purchases? A 2005 study by Leo J. Shapiro & Associates and Marketing Support Inc. found discount retailers such as Wal-Mart to be most popular among impulse buyers, while home improvement stores were the least popular.
That could, however, be changing: Since about 2005, home improvement chain Home Depot, one of the nation's top retailers, has placed common impulse buy products like candy, snacks and drinks in its check-out aisles.
While they hope to sell such products to all customers, they're largely targeted at Home Depot's "pro customers" -- on-the-job contractors who come to the store to restock on supplies.
"They're in and out of store all day long and they don't have time to stop, so they're able to pick up things like a beef jerky and a soda," instead of taking an extra trip to a supermarket, said Jean Niemi, a spokeswoman for the chain.
The Thrill of the 'Treasure Hunt'
But Home Depot can't rely on jerky -- and other aisle-fillers -- alone.
Impulse buy sales at the chain haven't compensated for weakness in other departments, including lighting and appliances. For the first three months of 2009, total sales at Home Depot declined nearly 10 percent, compared with a year ago.
At warehouse club Costco, sales dropped 7 percent in May over last year. Here, too, impulse buys weren't enough to compensate for recession-related sales declines -- this, despite the fact that Costco's definition and prices for impulse-buy products are wider than those of most retailers.
Costco considers impulse purchases to be "treasure hunt" items, said Richard Galanti, Costco's chief financial officer. They're products that don't typically stock the stores' shelves but rather are offered to consumers only when Costco secures a good deal from manufacturers. Often, this can include high-end product like Prada handbags or TAG Heuer watches.
As a result, Costco's treasure hunt items can range in price from $20 to $2,000.
For Costco, the appeal of such sales isn't just in profits -- Galanti said that impulse buys make up roughly 5 to 6 percent of the retailer's sales volume -- but rather in what they add to the atmosphere within a store.
"It creates some of the excitement," he said. "People go into Costco to buy their essentials, walk out with something they didn't expect to buy and they're thrilled buy it."
No matter where you get your impulsive shopping thrills, Benson advises that you make sure that your wallet-sapping indulgences aren't signs of something more pathological -- an addiction to shopping.
Dangerous Splurge or Healthy Buy?
Symptoms of the addiction include chronic over-spending, shopping behavior that hurts relationships with others and mood swings following a shopping trip.
"Compulsive buyers may get a short-term lift but afterward their mood sinks below where they started," Benson said.
Of course, most Americans are not shopping addicts and there is even such a thing as a "healthy" impulse buy, Benson said.
It can be anything from a book that helps you conquer a problem to a scarf that matches much of your wardrobe, she said.
For Sheri Combs, it might be her latest cookbook.
In a message to ABCNews.com, the Akron, Ohio, woman said that the cookbook she picked up recently would help her save money by making more meals at home.
It can "be justified by the fact that meals made at home are cheaper and often better for you than meals eaten out," Combs said. "All in all...a win, win situation!"