Home Health News Can Credit Cards Make You Fatter?

Can Credit Cards Make You Fatter?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I don’t do a ton of news “reporting” on my blog (maybe I should?) but this struck me as interesting:

Is it really possible that using a credit card can make you fat? Cornell researchers compared shoppers who used cash at checkout time versus those customers who used credit cards.


photo credit: by 401(K) 2013

“Both groups buy the same amount of potatoes, the same amount of broccoli, the same amount of essentials, but if you’re paying with a credit card, you’re more likely to buy junk than if you’re paying cash,” said Smart Money magazine columnist Jack Hough.

Both groups paid attention to the price and nutritional value of the items they were buying. It’s just that those using cash found paying for groceries far more painful, so they didn’t give in to impulse buying, at the last minute all those goodies seductively displayed close to the cash register.

So what about debit cards? Do people use them more like cash or credit cards when buying junk food?

“People with cash buy very little junk food. People with debit cards buy more and people with credit cards by the most. So if you’re looking to cut out junk and save money, skip debit and credit cards and pay cash,” Hough said.

Those shopping around New York City on Monday said this new study could help in the battle of the bulge.

“I watch my credit card bills go up and I watch my weight go up,” Bill Taylor said.

“You’re more likely to follow impulses I guess if you’re not dependent on what’s actually in your pocket,” Benjamin Bradham added.

“People don’t think of the credit card as cash so they buy more. I don’t know. I just like to use my debit card because I feel it controls me a little better,” Stephanie Sullivan said.

Credit cards make up 40 percent of all purchases, with the average American carrying 4.4 credit cards in his or her wallet.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that just as cash for payment has fallen by a third in the last two decades, obesity has been on the rise among Americans. [source]

How does this fit in for you? I know that, for me, I only carried cash in the beginning. (Actually, I have a funny story about this to share one day.) I wanted to limit myself in what I could and would purchase, so I only brought cash (and no debit card) to the grocery. It felt like bringing access to additional “money” was my green light to act a fool at the grocery. I had to cut that out.

Check out the clip:


How about you? Does this ring true for you? Do you have any thoughts? Let’s hear ’em!

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Thembi November 19, 2010 - 12:24 PM

Using money you don’t really have to buy food that’s not really food makes too much sense…

Erika November 19, 2010 - 12:27 PM

LOL You could also always skip both and the hassles that come with ’em. LOL!

JoAnna November 19, 2010 - 12:30 PM

Erika, I have a debit/check card. So whatever I spend is immediately deducted from my bank account. Consequently, I always shop with a list. Drives my friends/family crazy! I don’t “window shop” if the money isn’t there. Why bother? And when I do splurge on food, it’s at a restaurant, not fast food or fluff at the grocery store. I promised myself that I would not buy any food that could fix myself at home. So most of my restaurants are “ethnic”: Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese. I once tried to make chicken biryani. 20 ingredients and a sorry pot later, I had to fix soup and salad with some somewhat edible chicken on top.

I think it’s like drinking pop: if you really don’t physically see the calories or the money you spend, you tend to drink/buy more. Then you think “I bought it. Therefore I’m gonna enjoy it…”

Erika November 19, 2010 - 12:34 PM

“I once tried to make chicken biryani. 20 ingredients and a sorry pot later, I had to fix soup and salad with some somewhat edible chicken on top.”

Man, the number of times I’ve gone through this trying to get veggie curry right… *angry face* LOL!

“I think it’s like drinking pop: if you really don’t physically see the calories or the money you spend, you tend to drink/buy more. Then you think ‘I bought it. Therefore I’m gonna enjoy it…'”

There’s an actual study on this – surrounding the concept of warehouse clubs, though. “I have it, I’m gonna eat it” + “I have it in surplus, therefore I can eat it in surplus…” + “Boy, am I hungry!” = “I don’t know where all this weight came from.”

*even angrier face*

Elita @ Blacktating November 19, 2010 - 12:41 PM

I am the exact opposite. When I have cash it burns a hole in my pocket and I spend like crazy on absolute nonsense. With my credit card, I know I am going to be getting a bill in a few weeks that will need to be paid (in full, on time, no exceptions) so I am much more careful. I can’t even tell you the last time I had cash in my wallet. It’s so bad that if I were ever in an emergency situation and needed cash, I’d be in big trouble. I try to remember to keep a couple dollars in quarters in my car but you will never find cash in my wallet.

Eva November 19, 2010 - 12:45 PM

If I’m using cash I can see the money disappearing so I’ll buy less crap; I don’t have a debit card and for some reason I never thought of buying food with a credit card.

Heli November 19, 2010 - 1:02 PM

This rings true for me. I usually shop with my debit card, use a list, and resist processed/refined foods to a great extent (no small feat with 2 & 4 yr olds in the house!) I’m a nut about bargain-hunting, and memorize unit prices for everything I buy so I know my price points. If it’s not on sale or I don’t have a coupon for it, I wait.

But…sometimes one of our credit cards does a triple-points promotion for grocery stores so I’ll use credit for a month. Even though I know I will be paying the bill in full within a few weeks, I still shop differently. I don’t go nuts, but I am less likely to think about what the grand total will be. I am more likely to throw in bigger ticket items (for me it just might be a more expensive package of meat, or that 2lb bag of jumbo shrimp). I guess my desire to keep losing weight and feed my family healthy food mostly outweighs my urge to buy junk, but using credit instead of cash or debit definitely changes my shopping habits. Oh, I know one thing that could apply: alcohol. Not that wine is junk(!) but on credit I might chose a $12-15 bottle more often than the $8-11 one. Beer too, in my husband’s case. Instead of the $7 6pk of premium, he’ll get the $5 24oz craft brew bottles. It’s not real money!

"Mira Luma" November 19, 2010 - 1:04 PM

@Elita – I’m the same way, also. It seems with cash, I go nuts! I think seeing it there makes me feel like it’s burning a hole in my wallet/pocket, and I need to get rid of it ASAP! However, with my debit card which is attached to my bank account, I feel more able to track my purchases more and be more mindful of my spending. I think it’s different for each person in regard to his or her own personal spending habits.

Msladee November 19, 2010 - 2:09 PM

True for me. Using cash means I have to GET cash which means stopping at the bank and seeing my balance and determining what I can and can’t afford. Then I have to go to the store, remember what I have in my pocket, remember what I have at home (which usually involves actually making a list of needs before I leave) and buy things that fit within the parameters of money and my health goals. Cash, at least for me, brings a certain amount of consciousness to grocery shopping.

With a card, there is convenience (and a comfortable unselfconsciousness). Swipe and leave. Add in card rewards- double frequent flyer miles? SWEET! – and it’s a done deal… that is until the statement at the end of the month shows how much I spent on junk food.

Mia November 21, 2010 - 11:51 AM

Cash goes too fast in my hand lol, so I use a debit card for control. I refuse to use credit cards though, because I despise interest (no matter how low it is). Plus, with a debit, I can remain accountable for where all my money goes. It is right there on my statement. With cash, unless you write down every little purchase (for me that is), I always seem to find myself asking, where did all my money go?

Yum Yucky November 22, 2010 - 12:40 AM

The only thing that results in ridiculous junk food in my cart is taking my husband to the grocery store with me. So I leaves him home. :/

Curlstar December 27, 2010 - 1:17 PM

Yum Yucky, I do the exact same thing, and I have my 2 young boys with me to see mommy purchasing healthy foods.

nettid December 26, 2010 - 2:17 PM

The same thinking goes on in retail stores, which is why stores are aways pushing those cards on you with the out of control interest rate. I carry debit cards,and make a list as Im not very good with carrying cash. I would rather have my expenses laid out in front of me. Keeps me from over spending.

Danielle1 May 7, 2011 - 8:47 AM

this is true for me (ugh im such an idiot at times)
went out yeterday for a friends birthday lunch forget my debit card in my other purse so I used my credit card and ended up getting a couple of vodka crans and a desert.

Jineane August 8, 2011 - 12:25 PM

It’s a logical correlation. Dave Ramsey advocates a cash lifestyle for a healthy financial picture, as it hurts more to pay for things with cash than it does to use plastic. My journey towards a healthier me includes eliminating debt, and this post just confirmed that I am headed in the right direction.

Tremilla November 1, 2011 - 10:06 AM

Not true for me. I think it’s all about willpower. You’re going to buy junk whether you’re paying with crash or credit.

T.R. November 1, 2011 - 7:50 PM

It’s true for me. If I have to use cash it definitely “hurts” more. I’m like Msladee and Eva. I’m much more prone to stick to my list if I have cash. But I always use my debit. I’ve had people suggest taking out a weekly cash limit and once that runs out oh well. I might have to do a personal experiment to see just how much I spend or don’t spend using cash vs. debit.

Rose June 27, 2012 - 12:39 PM

This is total propaganda. I can’t even believe Cornell University let this study get published. Well yes I can for publicity. The problem with this study and other studies like this are the fact that this is a correlational study. And no there is nothing wrong with that but that makes it that much harder to determine the direction of the correlation. In other words, do credit cards make you fatter or do fatter people use credit cards more often? You cannot determine the direction of the relationship because you cannot determine causation. Let’s not even get into the fact that this is totally a spurious conclusion. If they were to inject a variable about level of self control their results would be null I believe. No I have no research to back me up but I’m pretty sure the actual relationship lies within levels of self control. Even that though is tricky because people indulge in different ways so someone who is able to control their food intake may splurge on shopping sprees. While someone else who leads a very unhealthy lifestyle may be the cheapest person around. I tend to ignore these types of articles because correlation does not equal causation. So yes using credit cards could make you gain weight from that perspective at the same time they could have no effect on your eating habits whatsoever.

marie January 6, 2013 - 2:28 PM

I would title this “can credit card make you poorer?”
When I have my credit card with me I feel like I have no limits (although there is one: my account balance lol). When I have money in general it compels me to buy more even when I don’t need anything. In order to suppress my bad habit of going to the vending machine at 3pm at work: I decided not to bring cash with me any longer. And it’s weird because the need to go to the machine just stopped like that, with no effort nor frustration..
In order not to buy unnecessary junk at the grocery store, I would bring the exact money and spend it on the item on my list. The problem is not credit card for my case it’s MONEY, and the kind of power I think it gives me and since i’m financially independent I gained more weight that’s sad to admit. :s

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