Study: Paying Cash, Not Credit, Leads to Healthier Food Choices

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Cashier smiling at customer on checkout line in supermarket, close-up

Paying with cash instead of plastic at the grocery store leads to more careful spending and healthier food choices, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research finds.

The idea is that shelling out actual money is psychologically more difficult than swiping a credit card, which takes away from the joy of spending.

Researchers followed the grocery shopping habits of 1,000 households over six months, tracking what they bought and how they paid for it. The study found that people who used debit or credit cards were significantly more likely to make unplanned, impulsive food choices. Their impulsive purchases also tended to be “vice products,” like cookies, cakes and other unhealthy foods. (More on The ‘Other’ Salt: 5 Foods Rich in Potassium)

“The notion that mode of payment can curb impulsive purchase of unhealthy food products is substantially important,” wrote authors, Manoj Thomas, Kalpesh Kaushik Desai and Satheeshkumar Seenivasan. “The epidemic increase in obesity suggests that regulating impulsive purchases and consumption of unhealthy food products is a steep challenge for many consumers.”

Further study will be needed to determine whether there is an actual cause-and-effect relationship between unhealthy eating or obesity and paying in plastic. If it’s any indication at all: 34% of Americans are obese, and in 2009 40% of U.S. grocery purchases were made using a credit or debit card. (More on Fitness Tech: 10 Cool Ways to Get in Shape)

Since grocery stores and banks are all for impulsive spending, you’ll have to police yourself. It might not hurt to try doling out paper bills the next time you’re deciding on a bag of potato chips.

Check out the study for other factors that affected people’s food-buying behavior.

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