Eat Healthier By Leaving Your Credit Cards At Home

In the last few decades, Americans use credit (or debit) cards for more and more of our everyday spending. We’re also, collectively, becoming more and more obese. A group of researchers wondered: is there a correlation here? They conducted four experiments looking at what types of food people purchase when using a credit card, and what they purchase when using cash. They published their findings in the Journal of Consumer Research. The result is not surprising: people are more likely to buy junk food, on impulse, when paying with plastic.

The key here is something called “pain of payment” – how much it feels like you’re spending and now difficult it is to part with your money. Researchers studied real-life (anonymous) data from a grocery store in addition to their own pretend-shopping experiments. The results were consistent: people paying with a credit card, or told that they were buying their imaginary food with an imaginary credit card, bought more items and less healthy items.

The researchers summarized:

The results from all these studies offer convergent support for our hypothesis that card payments increase the purchase and, presumably, the consumption of unhealthy food products. Our conceptualization is based on the premise that when consumers encounter vice products–such as cookies, cakes, and pies–the emotive imagery and associated desire trigger impulsive purchase decisions. These visceral factors entice them to include such vice products in their shopping baskets, even though they consider such products to be unhealthy.

How Credit Card Payments Increase Unhealthy Food Purchases: Visceral Regulation of Vices [Journal of Consumer Research] [PDF] (via Economix – thanks, Naomi!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. nbs2 says:

    It sounds more like people that used cash used their budget on essentials while CC users were more likely to exceed their intended budget and thus buy unnecessary wants. I’m curious to know how check purchasers would have done- do they buy more metamucil?

    As an aside, isn’t this just another data point to shove in the face of merchants who cry about acceptance fees? If people are buying more than intended because of CC use, then earnings per sale increase. How is the cost of accepting CCs any different in the grand scheme of increasing that EPS statistic than advertising?

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I think some people make a huge distinction between cash and credit that I don’t think is always necessary. I treat my credit like it’s cash – but with way more awesome benefits and security. I don’t think the study factors people who don’t carry any cash at all, ever. I never carry any cash with me.

      • Battlehork says:

        Personally, if I have cash on me, I’m MORE likely to make impulsive purchases. If the money’s out of my account balance, it’s already spent.

      • nbs2 says:

        If you can treat credit like cash, then certainly. But I think with the general populace, you see folks that use cash being limited to actual cash on hand while the credit folks need to (and fail to) account for previous expenditures.

  2. BobOki says:

    I have to say I do not agree with this article. I did this SAME experiment the other day, when my debit card got eaten by my cat, and I can say I found the opposite to be true. The only places that did NOT take card are the ones that had the MOST unhealthy food.
    I also found myself buying MORE food so I had to carry less small change. If I had a twenty I found myself buying that extra $1 menu to even it out so I didn’t get $5 and 3 $1’s back.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Sorry about your card, but the fact that your cat ate it is hilarious. “I know I’m 50 cents short, but my cat ate my debit card!”

    • Zerkaboid says:

      You are really bothered by carrying around a few extra paper bills? That’s seems ridiculous.

  3. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    I think I’m the complete opposite. I’m much more likely to blow money when I’m paying in cash vs. plastic. I rarely use cash at all but if I have it in my wallet, it was already deducted from my budget when I withdrew it from the ATM. Odds are, any extraneous cash in my wallet is whatever is left over from another purchase and is essentially “free money”.

    If I’m paying with plastic, I tend to think about every dollar and run it against my budget.

    • reishka says:

      I’m very much this way. I use online banking as a key part of my budgeting plan. If I pull 20$ out of an ATM for an expense that is 15$ or 17$, that expense is counted as a 20$ expense and any cash left over is play money. I tend to spend cash without thinking much about it because of that.

    • Etoiles says:

      Very much the same kind of spender. I always know what’s in my account (using online banking, Mint, etc) and what’s going to be leaving my account (bills that are scheduled for the upcoming weeks) so cash in my wallet is “already spent” and “free money.”

      Considering I get $30 form the ATM about once a month, I’m not that picky about how I spend it, either.

  4. darcmosch says:

    Guess what? I feel like I’ve been losing weight while I have actually gained a couple of pounds this week. Just because u feel one way is not a substitute for empirical data

  5. kamiikoneko says:

    Oh my god are you serious? How about you eat healthier by not eating fried processed garbage!? Enjoy your meal out instead of looking and feeling stingy. If health is the concern then stop going to damn Outback and go somewhere with healthy food.

  6. RandomHookup says:

    I find that I eat really healthy foods if I leave all forms of payment at home. I’m forced to forage for nuts and berries and small animals It works unless I stumble upon a recently filled dumpster at McDonalds.

  7. You Can Call Me Al(isa) says:

    This is definitely off-topic, but “eat” is a verb, “healthier” is an adjective. You can’t describe a verb with an adjective.
    It should be “eat more healthily.”

    /rant off

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      You can say “eat healthy” without a knock on the door from the grammar police. Therefore, you can also say “eat MORE healthy.”

      Also, words can be more than one type of grammatical object. Like a noun AND a verb, depending on how you use it.

    • rpm773 says:

      I just assumed “Healthier” was a noun…

      …that didn’t take American Express

    • asherchang2 says:

      Before you continue any further with that sort of uninformed didacticism, you should read this.

      The abstract: It has long been argued that the environments in which adjectives and adverbs occur are mutually exclusive. This claim is based on a superficial observation that adjectives modify nouns, while adverbs modify other categories. In this paper, we argue that there are a substantial number of environments in English where complementarity, thus defined, does not hold. One interesting such environment is the function of modifier of nouns, and in one section of this paper we present a detailed analysis of a rarely observed construction in which adverbs, like adjectives, have this function.Complementarity between adjectives and adverbs is often used in support of a further claim, periodically espoused by a variety of linguists from Kuryłowicz (1936) to Baker (2003), that adjectives and adverbs are effectively inflectional variants of a single major category. In the final sections of this paper, we argue not only that complementarity as defined does not hold, but that distribution per se is irrelevant to the issue of whether adverbs are inflectionally or derivationally related to adjectives. A review of the arguments points towards adverbs in English in fact standing on the derivational side of the boundary, and forming a distinct (though in some respects atypical) major category.

  8. jeanniez says:

    I track all my purchases from credit and debit in a spreadsheet each month. Both my spouse and I pay for our lunches with cash. I like to do that because there is no record when I indulge in a guilty pleasure.
    Yes, I don’t want my husband to know I eat White Castle once in a blue moon.
    And I really don’t want to know how much he spends on lunch day to day.
    So we pay cash. We do keep within a budget for cash, but I definitely use it for things I want to buy and forget.

  9. Etoiles says:

    Huh, I’m the opposite. I buy groceries and “real meals” with plastic but will use cash for a bad-for-me impulse purchase in the work coffee shop or at a vending machine.

  10. rpm773 says:

    Meh. While I do believe in idea that feeling the pain of the purchase will cause one to assess the purchase more before buying, I’m not sure I accept the premise of this study.

    If you make this leap of logic, and want to try to eat less by using cash instead of plastic, you probably will. But I think your initial goal would have to be to consume less.

    If no such initiative exists, you’ll end up just trying to get more bang for your buck. Which means consuming more cheaply-produced, processed crap designed to satisfy the primal senses instead of providing actual nourishment.

    My take…

  11. UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

    Just looking at the paper itself, I already see one big problem: One hundred and fifty-one undergraduateand graduate students (47% women) from Cornell University participated in this study for a small sum of money. Terrible sample for this portion of the research.

    Also, their huge multi-beta model is going to naturally increase confidence. They may have “meaningful results” simply because they pumped so many variables into their models.

    Finally, their choice of “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” baskets of goods may be skewing results. Some of what’s on the “healthy” basket I wouldn’t buy if I didn’t have to either!

    • Mom says:

      A lot of economic studies use students in a lab setting. While the studies are interesting, other studies consistently show that people behave differently in these lab studies than they do in real life.

    • jason in boston says:

      Stop it with your facts. This blog doesn’t like your kind.

  12. Mom says:

    When I read the headline, my first thought was “Well yeah, the people at the farmer’s market only take cash.” So it’s true for me. I use plastic pretty much everywhere else.

    Too bad the article was about something completely different.

  13. OSAM says:

    Correlation does not imply causation. Nice try.

    • ExtraCelestial says:

      Just about to write the same thing. I hate these kinds of studies. They are almost as bad as the “58% of people that eat more than 5 purple grapes a day are 3 times less likely to be hit by a bus, therefore if you eat 6 purple grapes each day you won’t ever be hit by a bus!” diet articles.

  14. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    The problem isn’t credit cards, sodas, HFCS, or anything else. It’s the personal decision that people make to put crap in their bodies–plain and simple.

    I challenge any obese person to have a diet containing mostly fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, good fats, only occasionally eating meat in reasonable portions, to cut out most processed foods, lower milk and cheese intake drastically, and to eat sugar rarely. If you stay fat and still feel like crap, then there is something wrong with you.

    It’s all about what you put into your body. Crap on the inside=crap on the outside.

    Before anyone slams me, I am a woman who used to weight 258. I am no longer morbidly obese. I know of what I speak.

    • JulesNoctambule says:

      A friend of mine eats the kind of diet you mention. She’s also an acrobat. She’s also considered medically obese. Her doctors test her routinely for all manner of illnesses and other health issues, but so far no one has the answer as to why she can lead a healthy, active lifestyle and still be overweight. They do all agree that she has a level of flexibility to be envied by anyone and is incredible on the trapeze, though.

  15. AllanG54 says:

    This goes against how I do things because if I have little cash I’ll eat some fast food crap but if I were going to use my credit card I don’t mind spending more in a restaurant because I’ll pay it off when the bill comes in. As for buying stuff at the supermarket, hell, that’s what a shopping list is for. I buy what I need and that’s it.

  16. milty456 says:

    And when people shop on Tuesday’s they buy more bananas. Correlation > causation.

  17. Outrun1986 says:

    If I was being told I was paying for my groceries with fake cash and that I was doing a pretend-shopping experiment then yeah, I would probably buy more too.

    As far as I am concerned since I know I am gonna have to pay that credit card bill eventually I don’t think using cash vs plastic has any effect. If anything keeping more cash in my wallet would get me to spend more since its right there, but the thought of having to pay a bigger bill next month because of my increased spending might be enough to put me off of spending a little extra.

  18. dreamfish says:

    Eat your credit card.

  19. teqjack says:

    Bovine excrement.

    I usually carry about twenty bucks cash, mostly for emergency cab fare. A typical supermarket grocery tab runs maybe a hundred bucks, so I use “plastic.” I will, however, sometimes use cash if I am only buying, say, an item I need that day but am not shopping for the week – maybe some carrots I forgot to get during the regular shopping.

    So, in this study I would be buying “healthy” with cash but so much as a package of gum bought with card[s] would be including “unhealthy” items.