Dieters, watch out: paying with plastic at the grocery store
can make you more likely to load up your cart with donuts, ice cream, potato
chips and other fattening foods.
Studies have shown that when shoppers pay with credit or
debit cards, they buy about 40 percent more unhealthy foods than those who pay
The logic may not be very mysterious, but it's definitely
worth being aware of if you want to keep both your spending and your weight in
check. When you use cash, you usually have to plan the purchase, estimate how
much money you'll need, then go to the ATM to withdraw it, says David Just,
associate professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University, who has
studied the use of plastic vs. cash in food purchasing decisions. "But a credit
card is there whenever you have the urge for a snack."
When you use cash, you also have to calculate whether you'll
have enough to pay, and that forces you to use your brain, Just says. "The act
of counting gets you thinking, not just about money but about the long-term
effects of the food," he says, and that makes cash-paying consumers more likely
to opt for the apples but not the Apple Jacks. "With cards, you just put the
stuff in the basket, walk over and swipe the card. It takes so little thought."
Worried your credit card might be plumping up your, uh,
other bottom line? Here are six ways to make sure plastic doesn't derail your
1. Pay for food with
cash. Experts say the best thing you can do for your waistline, as well as
your wallet, is to buy groceries with cash. "I know plastic is more
convenient," says Kalpesh Desai, a professor at Binghamton University who did a
study on the grocery shopping habits of 1,000 single-family households. "But
using cash will help you fight the impulse to buy unhealthy foods."
The study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Consumer
Research showed shoppers who paid with plastic bought at least 40 percent more
junk foods, such as ice cream, donuts, cookies, gum and candy. However, 86
percent of consumers in the study paid with plastic on their shopping trips,
while only 14 percent used cash.
Researchers looked at records of the study participants'
purchases and payment methods over a six-month period. The purchasing method
didn't affect the amount of healthy food -- including meat, vegetables, fruit,
baby food and whole grains -- consumers bought. In the study, shoppers who used
cards paid attention to prices and knew they'd regret buying foods laden with
fat and sugar, but did it anyway, Desai says: "Unhealthy products have such a
strong hold on us that we're unable to resist."
2. Or, just go cash-only
for treats. If you prefer using plastic for your groceries, you could take
a hybrid approach: buy only nutritious foods with a card and buy treats with
cash. In a 2009 study at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which does research on
how consumers relate to foods, researchers found that students who paid cash
for school lunches, instead of using prepaid debit cards, spent 30 percent more
on healthy items such as low-fat milk, bottled water, fruit and vegetables.
With cards, you just put the
stuff in the basket, walk over and swipe the card. It takes so little thought.
|-- David Just
However, researchers saw students make similarly healthy
food choices when they were given a debit card that could only be used to
purchase foods that were good for them, and also were given additional cash
they could use to buy anything they wanted, Just says.
3. Limit your funds.
If you walk into a store with only $50 in your wallet, you'll probably spend
less than if you go in with a credit card that has a $5,000 limit, experts say.
"People who have credit have more money to spend, so they tend to spend more
freely," Just says. So, you could nix the credit card for your food purchases
and instead load up a debit card with a set amount each week or month. Once the
money is gone, it's gone.
"That's a modern incarnation of the old budget trick where
people would take cash out and put it in an envelope," Just says. While it
likely would not be as effective as using cash, it's still a way to trick
yourself into staying on track with your purchases, experts say.
4. Make a grocery list,
and stick to it. If you make a grocery list just so you won't forget
anything, it probably won't help you in your resolution to avoid unhealthy
foods, Just says. In other words, you'll probably remember the cabbage you need
to make your veggie soup, but you might also grab those cream puffs you don't
need on your hips. However, if you make a list of nutritious items and decide
ahead of time not to buy anything else, Just says it probably will help a lot.
"You need to make your decisions before you even walk in the
door," says Lisa Galper, a Phoenix psychologist and expert in the psychology of
weight loss. That can mean making a grocery list, looking at a menu online and
deciding what to order before a business lunch or even vowing to order only one
pastry before you walk into a donut shop, she says.
5. Put a lock on
temptation. First it was fast food restaurants and now more vending
machines are starting to take credit cards, according to Capital Processing
Network. So experts say consumers need to think ahead about ways to avoid
temptation or make it harder for themselves to pull out a card, swipe and
One tactic is to avoid the temptation. For example, Just
says he tries not to walk past a vending machine that takes credit cards right
down the hall from his office.
Another option? Lock your wallet in your desk drawer, he
suggests. Similarly, Galper recommends locking your purse in your car trunk if
driving past fast food restaurants makes you crave a greasy burger. "No one
wants to pull into the drive through, put the car in park, go around to the
trunk and get their purse out," Galper says.
For the same reasons that plastic can make it easy for
consumers to get into debt, credit and debit cards also can promote unhealthy
eating habits, Galper says: "People tend to spend and eat mindlessly, so it's
important to be mindful."
See related: Too much fast food can be hazardous to your credit
, Beyond couponing: How big families can cut their food budgets