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I’ve heard of blaming one’s weight on a lot of things, but credit and debit cards? That was a new one for me and a theory reported at TheStreet.com that, when considered carefully, does seem to carry a lot of weight.

According to the study, there are two main reasons that credit and debit cards are making people fat. First, using debit or credit cards feels more comfortable than using cash. Plastic is so easy, it’s mindless. It’s a stand-in for the real thing. On the other hand, physically handing over cash is tangible and real. And it can be downright painful to part with hard-earned cash!

The authors also conclude that the link between debt and obesity is impulse. Using plastic payment methods increases the likelihood of impulsive purchases, specifically junk food. People are more likely to grab unhealthy foods on impulse and are then more likely to carry through with the purchase if they’re using plastic. But if paying with cash, they are more likely to rethink the unhealthy choice and walk away.

I believe there is yet another message here: Cash is tedious, old-fashioned and not very cool. But swiping plastic is modern, fast and considered impeccably safe. And when that plastic payment is made via an app, it can be done in complete privacy. In the blink of an eye, it feels as if payment is complete and no one has to know.

Clearly, consumers have bought into this theory in a big way. RBC Capital Markets reports that you will spend 20%-30% more if you pay with plastic. It’s not the real thing, so we don’t treat it with the seriousness we treat currency. A $9.50 payment with plastic is nothing compared to handing over a $10 bill, which makes us at least pause and think. In fact, most people don’t even pay attention to the total amount when swiping plastic. And that’s where the consumer credit industry has duped an entire generation.

It’s a pain to dig in the pocket for $10 to pay for a quick lunch. But swipe a card? Easy. In fact, you don’t even have to pay that close attention to the tab. Who cares if it’s $5 or $17 when you can just swipe and go?

What’s more, according to the article, when paying with plastic, we’re more apt to go ahead and supersize that combo. Oh, and how about throwing in an apple turnover, too? After all, you don’t have to worry about the total as it magically disappears into the whole process of paying with plastic.

You know, I think this theory does have merit. And I’ll bet that it translates to grocery shopping and eating in fancy restaurants, too. Credit and debit cards are making America fat.

Some years ago, I was the guest of one of my readers who, at the time, just happened to own one of the highest-rated restaurants in America — Tavern on the Green in New York City. Yes, lucky me.

I’m certain that I ate more than I should have because I had this sense that I could order with abandon. I was a guest. I accepted such a generous gift with great enthusiasm!

Now, had I been the one paying the tab, I might have been a bit more, shall we say, discriminating with what I ordered. It was fabulous! So carefree, I could enjoy with abandon. The menu was my playground. It was a rare opportunity to luxuriate in fine food without paying attention to the real cost.

I highly recommend that my readers who are struggling to live below their means go on an all-cash diet. And now I can promise you a bonus. Not only will you lose debt, chances are great you’ll lose weight, too!

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Mary Hunt

Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at tips.everydaycheapskate.com/ . This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

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