The Great Recession was supposed to make Americans less materialist. But researchers who track consumer behavior say there's no data to show that spending habits have changed.
But people in the habit of shopping as a "pick-me-up" can put at risk financial goals that are extremely important to their long-term happiness, according to Howell. Indeed, bad spending habits can jeopardize the goal at the top of the priority list for many families: saving enough for a home in a safe neighborhood with good schools for their kids.
But the good news for those prone to emotional spending is that research shows they can alter their behavior if they focus on a couple of simple steps.
"Every time you're about to make a purchase, ask yourself out loud why you're buying that item. Then you'll be much more aware of your emotional drivers, which can help you avoid mistakes," Howell says.
Another effective measure to curb impulse purchases is to carry a little pocket notebook and write down everything you spend.
"By always noting where your money goes, you can turn an emotional spending process into a cognitive process. That gives you more control of your behavior," Howell says.
Here are a few other pointers for those trying to save for a home:
-- Give up the habit of shopping for entertainment.
Gerri Detweiler, a consumer advocate and personal finance author, says that even though research shows people derive more happiness from experiences -- like visiting friends or going to a park -- they continue to pursue shopping on the belief that it's more personally rewarding.
"One way to put an end to random, unfocused shopping is to create a list of alternate activities you'd also enjoy," Detweiler says.
What alternatives might you consider? She says most people do well with social activities. For example, you might have a few friends over for a simple and inexpensive lunch plus a movie in your living room. Or you could join an outdoor club that schedules low-cost weekend outings.
-- Monitor your accounts on a regular basis.
Many people use debit cards rather than paying with cash or checks. But they fail to track their debits, which means they're only vaguely aware of their account balance at any given time. This leaves them susceptible to the embarrassment of blocked purchases or overdraft fees.
To avoid such potentially costly scenarios, Detweiler urges you to monitor your checking account activity on a regular basis.
"The best idea is to do this every day. If not every day, do it at least weekly at the minimum.
In addition, she says people who use credit cards often should track these accounts regularly, a practice she calls "Money Management 101."
-- Seek free help with budgeting.
Most financial planners aren't set up to do budget counseling for middle-income people on a tight budget. Rather, they're oriented to helping those who've already accumulated considerable financial assets.
But, as Detweiler notes, there's free help available for those struggling to limit spending, pay off debt and save for a down payment to buy a property.
"Most people don't realize they can access really good budget assistance at no charge, as well as free educational seminars on home buying," she says.
Would-be homebuyers can locate free counseling services in their area through the website of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (www.hud.gov). Once on the site, search for "HUD approved housing counseling agencies." Or call HUD's toll-free counseling locator: 800-569-4287.
-- Reduce your expenditures for "fine dining."
Overspending of any sort can reduce your chances of attaining your savings goal. But Detweiler says one of the toughest financial habits to break involves eating out.
"Restaurant tabs are enormous budget busters for lots of folks," Detweiler says.
Your savings plan won't crash just because you buy an occasional meal. But it's a different story for those who eat out several times a month at fancy restaurants that serve fine wines, exquisite entrees and delectable desserts.
-- Cast your buying plans in advance of shopping.
In the past -- before the baby boom generation -- many Americans used the "envelope system" to manage their spending. Each time they were paid, they'd tuck away dollars in specified envelopes for such necessities as food, rent, utilities and clothing. They'd also regularly allocate money for savings.
This envelope system was an effective money-saving strategy because it helped ensure that the essentials were covered and that savings accounts were fed. In addition, it increased the odds that money would be available for important big-ticket items -- such as the purchase of a replacement car -- without going into debt.
Nowadays, few people use the envelope system. But you can be equally effective in reaching your savings goals through automatic withdrawals from your paycheck to your savings account on a weekly or biweekly basis, Detweiler says.
"Given the high cost of living, advance planning is absolutely critical for families trying to buy a first home or make a move-up purchase," she says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)