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Paying with Credit Cards Makes You—Fat?

By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
November 18, 2010

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Most consumers know from experience that one tends to spend more when paying with a credit card—on average as much as 14 percent more, according to studies. However, apparently, using credit cards don’t just make you spend more, it can also make you—well, fat.

If this seems an unlikely accusation to levy on a slim, innocent-looking piece of plastic, take note: according to new studies, paying with credit cards makes you more likely to purchase unhealthy foods on impulse—and pack on extra pounds as a result.

Experts have long pointed out that credit cards tend to encourage impulse purchases, because paying with credit cards defers the so-called “pain of payment.” Whipping out a piece of plastic is much less painful than the act of handing over actual physical money. Parting with our hard-earned dollar bills is much more real, driving cash-paying consumers to spend less. When paying with credit cards, on the other hand, the act of parting with money becomes an abstract event in the future, not nearly as effective an antidote to the euphoric rush that comes with buying.

However, according to the new study from the Journal of Consumer Research, those credit card impulse buys don’t just predispose you to spend more, but in particular also to buy more “bad” things, such as junk food. The study authors go as far as suggesting that these impulsive purchases may be a contributing factor to weight gain.

The researchers reached these conclusions based on four empirical studies. In the first study, they looked at the shopping patterns of a random sample of one thousand single-member households. The authors looked at what consumers purchased and how they chose to pay for it. The data showed that consumers bought more sweets and junk food when they paid with credit cards. Shopping with a larger basket or cart also made customers susceptible to impulse buys; they also tended to buy less junk when shopping during the weekend.

In the second study, participants responded to a theoretical “simulated shopping task” in which they were first told whether they would be paying with cash or credit and then asked to pick between a mix of healthy and unhealthy foods. Once again, the participants paying with “credit” selected more junk foods. In the third and fourth studies, researchers repeated the experiment online and in another laboratory. The results were the same.

So, the million dollar question, of course, is could changing how you pay for food help you lose weight? Losing weight is a complex subject, but if you have trouble controlling your impulse to pick up a candy bar (or two or three), try leaving that Visa credit card in the drawer and paying with cash more often. Who knows, you may find that, as your piggy bank grows, your waistline shrinks.




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