The economic downturn is putting a new twist on spring cleaning. Tamme Wisinski discovered how much unnecessary stuff she had amassed after...

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CHICAGO — The economic downturn is putting a new twist on spring cleaning.

Tamme Wisinski discovered how much unnecessary stuff she had amassed after losing her job in January.

Looking to raise some money, the 36-year-old Chicagoan began going through her closets, discovering clothes and books and jewelry she says she “went nuts purchasing” before she found out her company was shutting down.

She is selling the goods online at Craigslist, marking her first foray into the secondhand marketplace. It’s making her rethink the way she shops.

“In the past, I’d go crazy,” Wisinski said. “Instead of buying one top, I’d buy several in different colors. Or if it was on sale, I’d buy it whether I needed it or not.

“Now I’ve learned to be much more reasonable about what I need and don’t need. Even after I do get a new job, I’m going to be a little more reserved in my spending than in the past,” Wisinski said.

Americans love to shop.

Indeed, an entire industry sprouted to handle the clutter amassed in U.S. households: colorful bins from the Container Store, woven baskets from Pottery Barn and a profusion of closet-organizing services.

Now economic and social forces are combining to stifle the buying binge.

Not only is money tight with food and gas prices rising, but credit is tougher to come by and homes are no longer available as an ATM.

At the same time, the spread of eco-consciousness is shining a spotlight on waste.

“Materially saturated”

“Early 21st-century America is the most materially saturated society in global history,” said Jeanne Arnold, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in a study of how working families use housing spaces.

“It’s no wonder that clutter jams so many of today’s homes. Americans are bombarded with opportunities to buy.”

In fact, finding a place to store all their material possessions has become “an overwhelming burden” for middle-class families, the study found.

Just ask Janet Kalbhen. The Web designer and mother has been going through her Long Grove, Ill., home conducting what she calls a “massive purge,” donating piles of clothes and toys to Goodwill and vowing to shop only for things she and her family need.

“Initially, I thought it was a matter of let’s get things organized,” Kalbhen said. “Then I realized it’s a matter of we have way too much stuff. I went room by room and asked, ‘What are we actually using and what do we need?’ and got rid of a lot.”

Real Simple, one of the most widely read consumer magazines, captured the mood in its April cover story, “Too Much Stuff: Six Ways to Clear the Clutter.”

During any economic slump, consumers re-evaluate how they spend their money, but retailers say this downturn appears to be deeper and more dramatic. A dozen retailers have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since the fall, including Linens ‘n Things on May 2.

But retailers and economists are starting to wonder if this current downturn is bringing about a longer-lasting shift in the consumer mind-set.

The “American mania” to shop has led to the doubling of consumption of goods in the U.S. between the 1950s and the 1990s, the UCLA report said.

Consumer spending hit a record high in 2007 at 71.6 percent of the gross domestic product, up from 60.8 percent in 1952. At the same time, Americans in total saved about 8 percent of their income in the 1950s and save nothing today.

It’s a trend that Standard & Poor’s Chief Economist David Wyss doubts will reverse any time soon as the craving for new things seems to be ingrained in the American psyche.

“I have full faith in Americans’ ability to continue to live beyond their means,” Wyss said.