With four growing children, my wife and I are at the supermarket a lot. I mean, A LOT. And rather than take out cash for every visit, the majority of the time we pay with a credit card.
I just read some studies done by researchers at State University of New York and Cornell University that are going to change what my wife and I carry in our wallets.1
The first ATM-opener: Researchers analyzed the shopping habits of a random sample of 1,000 households and discovered that when shoppers pay with credit cards they throw more cookies, sugary candy, high-calorie chips and other junk food in their carts than when they pay with cash.
Three subsequent studies used a mock shopping task on a computer screen. Half of the participants were told the virtual store accepted all major credit cards and the other half was told it accepted only cash. Just like the real-life shoppers, the virtual credit-card shoppers spent more money on vice items (over 70 percent more, in fact) than did cash buyers.
So just the idea of using a credit card can lead to bigger bellies.
Why Paper’s Less Fattening Than Plastic
The final two studies did a deeper dive into the psychology behind cash vs. plastic. They confirmed that impulsivity and unhealthiness are highly correlated. That is, we’re not very impulsive about buying healthy foods—whether we’re paying by cash or credit. When it comes to “vice” foods, however, when we pay with plastic, we seem to lose all control. We not only spend more on junk (regardless of price) that we had no intention of buying, but we also regret it more later.
The result? We’re broke, bummed and facing a pantry full of junk food.
Blame it on a principle experts call the “pain of payment.” When you need to dole out the green stuff, you literally hand over something that’s valuable. Doing that makes you more likely to pause a moment and truly consider the cost — to your wallet and your waistline.
Paying with plastic, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like you’re losing anything since there’s such a delay between purchase and payment. So you’ll throw whatever looks good at the moment into your cart without thinking. And on go the pounds!
Green Your Way Thin
- Before you even head for the store, plan your meals for the week and create a shopping list.
- Shop on weekends. The study found that shopping on weekends led shoppers to buy fewer impulsive items (like candy).
- Leave the credit cards at home. Instead, estimate how much money you’re going to spend and bring just enough cash, so you won’t even have the money to stray toward the sweets.
- Snack on something healthy before you go to the store — some crackers and hummus, or carrots and salsa — so your stomach won’t distract you and lead you down the wrong path (aka the donut aisle).
- If you don’t like the idea of carrying around cash, use an ATM card with a pre-set amount.
- If you must shop with plastic, take a good look in your cart before you swipe your card and ask yourself, “Would I still want these [cookies, chips, insert your favorite junk food here] if I had to pay for it with cash?
- Circle the perimeter as soon as you enter the supermarket. Here, you’ll find most of the healthier items on your list such as fresh produce, dairy foods and meat, fish or poultry products. Then … and only then … walk down just those interior aisles, armed with your list (and stick to it).
- Walk past the end caps. These colorful end-of-aisle displays typically spotlight packed, over-processed foods that lack any real nutritional value.
- If there’s a line at checkout, avoid those temptations strategically placed to catch your eye by thumbing through a magazine while you wait.
It may take a little more planning, but I am definitely going to go with cash for my next grocery run. Hey, if it can help me keep away from the Ben & Jerry’s, it’s worth an extra trip to the ATM!
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
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1. Thomas M, Desai KK, Seenivasan S. How credit card payments increase unhealthy food purchases: visceral regulation of vices. J Consum Res. 2011;38(1):126-139.