What's the difference between a hoarder and a collector?

Dr. Russell Belk, a psychologist, says a hoarder saves things even when he can think of no earthly reason for doing so. A collector, on the other hand, is usually purposeful and systematic, whether the objects saved are valued for their utility or for other reasons.Belk says the tendency to accumulate things is nearly universal - "at least in this culture in which we see collecting as a useful contribution to science or to art."

Belk, who teaches at the University of Utah business school, was one of a group of 21 researchers who traveled by bus from Los Angeles to Boston, stopping along the way to interview consumers.

For many people, he learned, objects with sentimental memories attached to them, such as gifts, artwork and handmade furnishings and photographs, are more meaningful than those with great external value.

When items such as a pair of bronzed baby shoes or a wedding dress are disposed of, it's often because there has been a death or a divorce. By disposing of them, an individual may be attempting to get rid of sad memories.

Want to get rid of something but can't seem to do it? Belk suggests putting it out of sight for a while.

"As time elapses," he says, "objects lose their meaning and it is less painful to part with them."

When is saving - or hoarding - serious enough to warrant attention?

When it's irrational, says Jerilynn Ross, president of the Phobia Society of America and a psychologist who counsels individuals and couples at Roundhouse Square Phobia Treatment Center in Alexandria, Va.

On a radio call-in show, Ross fielded phone calls from hoarders. One woman confessed that she couldn't throw away ice cream sticks. Another person collected newspaper comic strips.

A hoarder may reform. For example, tag-sale operator Irene Marcenaro of Westport, Conn., arranged a sale for a woman who appeared unable to resist buying cups and saucers.

"They were in drawers, on shelves, even in the oven," says Marcenaro, who learned that the collector was driven by the fact that when she was a child there were none in her home. Though she couldn't resist buying them, she was able to sell them.

Going into business helped turn Marcenaro from her acquisitive ways. Once she had found it difficult to resist Limoges dishes and crystal stemware, but no more. "I see so much, I don't want anything around," she says.

Others who run sales say it's sentiment rather than calculation that causes people to change their mind about selling something.

"At first they are eager to put everything in a sale. Then they start thinking. Next thing you know they're pulling out things," says Debby Berman, co-owner of The Good Riddance Girls, a Stamford, Conn., tag-sale business.

Typically, clients remove items of purely sentimental value, such as linens, silver, photos, books and small pieces of furniture, rather than practical things, she says.

Berman herself is not immune to sentiment. She says she is attached to a butcher's knife that belonged to her late grandfather, even though it doesn't cut as well as a new one.

Dr. Lynn Kahle, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, says holding onto things may indicate satisfaction with yourself as you are.

"People buy things that reflect their self-image," Kahle says. "To the extent that they want to change their self-image, they will try to get rid of the old things to buy new ones that reflect a new sense of self."