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With 12 million Americans unemployed, it's not surprising that more than half of Americans say the economy will affect their holiday spending this year.

Richer people and the young, though, plan on splurging more than others.

While overall spending on gifts is expected to decline 3.4% this year, the most affluent Americans -- those in the top 10%, with more than $100,000 in discretionary income -- plan to boost their spending on gifts by 22%, according to the American Express 2012 Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America.

Meanwhile, seven out of 10 young adults expect to "self-gift" this season, the highest percentage in the 10-year history of the National Retail Federation's holiday consumer-spending survey, compared with six out of 10 people overall. The survey found that 71.5% of those aged 18 to 24 intend to splurge on themselves, spending an average of $159.62. Survey spokeswoman Pam Goodfellow said young adults seem to have a "one for you, two for me" mentality about the holidays, "which is surprising given that this is also the age group that typically doesn't have the income or ability to splurge."

Splurging got a bit of a bad rap in recent years. Some even blamed profligate consumers for the mortgage mess and subsequent economic downturn. (Rather more to blame: banks making unwise loans, then exacerbating the effect with derivatives and other exotic investments.)

But splurging has an important place in our lives. The right splurges can bring us pleasure and keep us motivated as we work to meet our other financial goals. It's kind of like being on a diet -- an indulgence now and then makes it easier to stay the course.

Liz Weston

When it comes to splurging, one group gets the lion's share of the attention: those who splurge too much. These are the folks who drag around thousands of dollars in credit card debt or outsized loan payments because they want what they want when they want it.

Another, less-noticed group are those who splurge too little. These folks, whom therapists call "under-spenders" or "over-savers," are so anxious about spending money that they will forgo luxuries they could easily afford and may even skimp on basics.

Finding a middle way may not be easy, but here are some of the wrong ways you can splurge:

On impulse. Whether you're an over-splurger or an under-splurger, you're far more likely to regret an unplanned binge than one that's taken some thought. In other words, there needs to be a substantial pause between the idea "I deserve this!" or "I'm going to treat myself!" and an actual purchase.

In fear. We humans hate to regret. So we may lunge for a treat or opt for add-ons because we worry we'll regret it later if we don't.

Unwisely. Big-ticket purchases are particularly likely to fool our brains about relative costs. Let's say you're planning to spend $30,000 on a car. The salesman suggests a few add-ons, such as a better stereo system, custom mats or window tinting. Each costs "only" a few hundred bucks, a small portion of the amount you're paying for the car, so our brains say, "Why not?" But in reality, these add-ons aren't cheap -- they often come with big markups, compared with what you'd spend if you bought them on your own later.

Something similar happens when you shop for less expensive but still pricey items such as televisions or even appliances. Each step up in price offers more features and potentially higher quality, so it's easy to talk yourself, step by step, into a much more expensive purchase that isn't necessarily the best use of your money.

Habitually. Do you always reach for the name brand rather than the store brand? Sometimes, the name brand really is better, but sometimes the only difference is a bigger marketing budget. You might be better off economizing with the store brand, and then splurging on something that's truly higher quality.

Unconsciously. Any unthinking spending could be a waste of a splurge. Take the much-maligned latte: That $4 could be squandered if you suck down the coffee drink at your desk while your attention is elsewhere. But it could be a lovely splurge if it's savored slowly as a welcome break from a hectic day.

The difference between a splurge that counts and one that's a waste is often just a little thought and preparation. If you want to get the most out of your money, you should splurge when you:

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Have the cash. Splurges are luxury spending, and it's still not OK to finance luxuries with debt, even if the splurge would be amazing. If you don't have the cash, save up until you do.

Have a plan. Here's when a list can come in handy. Write down potential splurges as they occur to you, in a notebook you carry or as a note in your smartphone. Set aside some time to periodically review your list, and figure out which splurges you want to incorporate into your budget. Figure out where you can cut other spending, and start putting aside money in an earmarked savings account. Many online banks allow you to set up multiple savings accounts, each dedicated to a specific purpose, without charging setup or ongoing fees and without requiring minimum balances.

While you're waiting to save up the money, you can research your purchase to make sure you're getting a good deal. Anticipating the purchase, and feeling smart about it, are ways to extend the good feelings of a splurge.

Maximize real happiness. Most purchases can make you feel good for a little while, but the warm fuzzy quickly wears off. What you should look for are purchases that deliver longer-lasting results. That often means buying experiences rather than objects, although an object you truly will enjoy every day has the potential to be a good splurge.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.

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