Paying with cash helps cut out junk food

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 15, 2014.

When shoppers pay for groceries in cash, they tend to stick to healthier staples and forgo junk foods. Photo: Matthew Staver, Bloomberg
When shoppers pay for groceries in cash, they tend to stick to healthier staples and forgo junk foods. Photo: Matthew Staver, Bloomberg

If you’re having trouble keeping junk food out of your shopping cart, researchers offer a simple solution: pay with cash instead of a credit or debit card.

Unhealthy foods – such as ice cream, candy, cookies or chips – are usually impulse purchases that people add to their carts on a whim, Cornell and State University of New York researchers found after monitoring the shopping habits of 1,000 households for six months.

Foods that shoppers perceived as “virtuous” – like vegetables, milk, meat and grains – were more likely to be planned purchases. When shoppers paid for groceries in cash, they were inclined to stick with the virtuous staples and forgo the impulse junk food.

In the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2011, researchers determined that paying with cash was psychologically more painful than paying with plastic.

“Parting with a hundred dollar bill is a very vivid and concrete action,” the authors wrote. “However, charging $100 to one’s credit or debit card is an abstract and less vivid action.”

But people with cash were happy to spend their money on foods they thought would improve their well being.

Another study Vanderbilt University scientists published this month revealed a different way shoppers can trick themselves into buying more healthy food – look for nutritious “supersize” deals. The old fast-food restaurant technique of offering consumers more food for a very small price increase also worked when the food being offered was a larger bag of baby carrots.