At the supermarket, you’re probably used to choosing between paper and plastic bags. But when it comes to paying for your groceries, you might also want to consider paper or plastic—money, that is. Research from Cornell University suggests that paying with cash, rather than credit or debit cards, may be the healthier way to go.
In a series of experiments, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers looked at how payment method affects healthful/unhealthful food choices. In one part of the study, 151 people viewed 10 “vice” foods (such as Oreos) and 10 “virtue” foods (such as beans and barley), in random order, on a computer screen, and decided if they wanted to add them to their “shopping cart.” Half were assigned “credit cards”; the other half, “cash.” The result? When they used credit cards, more vice foods ended up in the cart. Another part of the study evaluated the actual supermarket purchases of 1,000 households over six months and similarly found that shoppers who used credit or debit cards bought more unhealthful foods compared to shoppers paying in cash.
People often buy unhealthful foods on impulse, unable to fight the visceral response they elicit. And it’s less psychologically painful to pay by credit card, the researchers explained, possibly because of the card’s “abstract and emotionally inert nature.” In contrast, “parting with a hundred dollar bill is a very vivid and concrete action” that can lead you to think twice about an impulse buy.
But does paying cash reduce the likelihood of buying healthful foods, too? No, the study found. People are more deliberate in their purchase of “virtue” products, and if you perceive something as necessary and good for you, it apparently hurts less to fork over the cash.
Checkout tips: Don’t count on willpower to keep you from grabbing a candy bar at the checkout line. Instead, you may want to decide ahead of time that you’ll use cash instead of a credit card. The study didn’t address other ways to inhibit impulsive buys, but making—and sticking to—a shopping list, and not going grocery shopping when you’re hungry, are also good ideas.