When Paying For Groceries, Rethink Using Plastic


Picture of cashier scanning items at a grocery storeYou’re used to hearing, “cash or credit” at the grocery check-out line (or seeing it as an option at self check-outs), but did you know that how you pay could determine whether you’re going home with bags of healthier foods as opposed to ones filled with less nutritious choices?

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research¹, people are more likely to buy unhealthy foods when they pay the cashier with a credit or debit card.

I have to be honest, when I read about the research, I tried to play the devil’s advocate. I attempted to mentally debunk their findings. After all, what difference could paying with cash or plastic make to my food choices? Once I really thought about the authors’ findings, though, I agreed that it makes total sense.

The authors believe two factors come into play:

1. They found that unhealthy food items tend to elicit impulsive responses. For instance, a debit/credit card shopper is making her way down the freezer aisle. Because she is usually really careful about the food choices she makes, she has no intention of browsing through the ice cream selection. Out of her peripheral, she notices the Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter (at 360 calories, 24 grams of fat). Without much thought, the item lands in the cart.

2. Cash payments are psychologically more painful than card payments. Shoppers experience an emotional response connected to the money they are paying with. Unless it’s philanthropic by nature,  it’s generally painful to hand over cash to another person.  A card is just a card—shoppers don’t mentally experience exchange or physically have to part with their money at the time of purchase. By knowing that they plan to pay with cash, they become more protective of the amount of money they will hand-over at checkout, which curbs their impulsive reaction to buy unhealthy food items.

This study is important to those who have already live healthfully, as well as to those who are currently adapting to making better food choices. Just knowing that paying with plastic could increase junk food purchases, people may opt to pay with cash when grocery shopping so they can better overcome impulsive actions associated with using cards.

Switching out payment methods is a relatively small, easy behavioral change that could help people make better food choices, which, in turn, leads to them, and those they shop for, being healthier.

The next time you head-out to for your weekly shopping trip, go with enough cash and see if this simple switch affects the types of food you take home.


¹Manoj Thomas, Kalpesh Kaushik Desai, and Satheeshkumar Seenivasan. “How Credit Card Payments Increase Unhealthy Food Purchases: Visceral Regulation of Vices.” Journal of Consumer Research.

Source:  Mary-Ann Twist, University of Chicago Press Journals