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Why Do We Keep Buying Things We Never Wear?

Shoppers browse clothes at a Zara store in Madrid

Angelica Hipolito (L) and her sister Stephanne Hipolito, browse clothes at a Zara store. REUTERS/Susana Vera

When you bought it, you really liked that soft, nubby sweater or that gritty, punk tee. And yet, you've never worn either of them. That piece of clothing you just had to have is hanging in your closet with the sales tag still on it. Sound familiar?

Paula Haerr, a 63 year old consultant in Cincinnati, knows this kind of wasteful shopping all too well. She calls it "an obsession," like collecting knickknacks.

"Sometimes it's so inexpensive that I have to buy it," Haerr said. "Sometimes it's my inner princess coming out. I see something with sparkles and it looks like so much fun. I think I'll wear it when I buy it, but then I never do and it sits in the closet."

Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, told NBC News such behavior is incredibly common. She writes on topics relating to the motivations and behaviors of shoppers.

"As part of my research, I go into people's homes and I look in their closets and under their beds," she said. "I find a lot of dust bunnies and I also find in almost every closet, under almost every bed, clothes that people haven't worn."

High Fashion

Deborah Boland lives in Toronto and writes the fashion blog FabulousAfter40. She told NBC News she feels guilty about the money she's wasted this way. She believes there are many reasons why she and other women do this.

"At first, it's a high," she said. "You look in your closet and you see it hanging there and it's like, 'Wow that's gorgeous, I love that, I feel so powerful, so great. I bought that and it's exciting.' And then as time goes on you think, 'Why did I buy that? I'm never going to do that again.' And then you do."

Why do people do this?

"Many shoppers act with their heart and not their head," said Tod Marks, Consumer Reports shopping expert. "Their good judgment is blinded by the prospect of a bargain. We buy things based on an idealized way we see ourselves, not as we actually are."

Yarrow's research confirms that. She discovered that clothing is often purchased based on a fantasy people have about themselves.

"They imagine themselves as the sort of person who goes on cruises or attends black tie events or goes camping or who is slimmer than they are," Yarrow explained. "So they buy things for this kind of person they imagine they're going to be that's not necessarily who they are now."

The Lure of a Bargain

People who buy clothes they don't wear tend to focus on how much money they saved, rather than what it cost. That's the part Yarrow wants people to focus on.

"You find something that's just wonderful in a particular way. Maybe there's something a little bit wrong with it, like it's a bit snug or it's not quite your color, but it's 80 percent off, so you end up buying it anyway and then because it really isn't right, you don't end up wearing it," she said.

Some people leave clothes hanging in the closet because they love the garment so much that they don't want to risk wearing it. They're afraid they'll spill on it or wear it out, so they save it for the perfect occasion that never comes.

Boland admits she does that, and she thinks other women do the same thing.

"You see a piece of clothing and it's just beautiful with jewels or crystals or feathers," she said. "It's like a piece of art and you buy it and it's hanging in your closet and it's gorgeous and you just can't even bring yourself to wear it. And then it goes out of style and you think — what a waste or money."

This buy-it-and-forget-it behavior isn't limited to women. "Guys do the same thing, but they have a different way of thinking," said Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot. "Women tend to fantasize about where they might wear it, whereas men think, 'I already have something like this and love it, so I definitely need it in all four colors.'"

The Psychology of the Sale

Impulse shopping moves a lot of merchandise, especially during the holiday shopping season.

"People are buying for others, but about 10 percent of all holiday shopping is self-gifting," said Miro Copic, marketing professor at San Diego State University. "So if you're buying something and it's buy one, get one free, buy one, get one 50 percent off, all of a sudden that's one for you and one for me. It's great psychology."

It's a lot easier to make an impulse purchase based on emotion when you shop at a store as opposed to online, Copic cautions.

"Once you touch it, once you feel it, once you have it in your hand, the psychology is: 'Wow, this is a new shiny object, this looks really nice, it's only this amount, I should buy it.'"

Remember, sales people are trained to encourage the purchase and to cross-sell you something to go along with the initial purchase — such as a tie, belt, scarf or sweater.

Stop and Think Before You Buy

Research by RetailMeNot finds that 21 percent of us go shopping to relieve stress, especially at the holidays. The website suggests asking these three questions before you head to the checkout counter:

  1. Does it fit? If not, don't buy it.
  2. Do you own something similar? If so, then you don't need it.
  3. Where am I going to wear it in the next four weeks? No idea? Then maybe you should skip it.

Lastly: Always Check the Return Policy.

First of all, can you return it? At some stores or for some clearance items, all sales are final. Ask yourself, do you really want something you can't bring back?

Be sure to find out all the details of the store's return policy. Is there a deadline for bringing it back? Does it still need to have the tags on it? If you ordered online, can you return it to the store or do you need to ship it back — and if so, who pays for that shipping?

One word of caution: Don't shop online if you're intoxicated. Tipsy shoppers often buy clothing they really don't want and may not be able to return.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.