Reading: Consumption Choices

Consumption Choices

Information on the consumption choices of Americans is available from the Consumer Expenditure Survey carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Table 6.1 shows spending patterns for the average U.S. household. The first row shows income and, after taxes and personal savings are subtracted, it shows that, in 2011, the average U.S. household spent $49,705 on consumption. The table then breaks down consumption into various categories. The average U.S. household spent roughly one-third of its consumption on shelter and other housing expenses, another one-third on food and vehicle expenses, and the rest on a variety of items, as shown. Of course, these patterns will vary for specific households by differing levels of family income, by geography, and by preferences.

Table 6.1. U.S. Consumption Choices in 2011
Average U.S. household income before taxes $63,685
Average annual expenditure $49,705
Food at home $3,838 (8%)
Food away from home $2,620 (5%)
Housing $16,803 (34%)
Apparel and services $1,740 (4%)
Transportation $8,293 (17%)
Healthcare $3,313 (7%)
Entertainment $2,572 (5%)
Education $1,051 (2%)
Personal insurance and pensions $5,424 (11%)
All else: alcohol, tobacco, reading, personal care, cash contributions, miscellaneous $4,051 (8%)


To understand how a household will make its choices, economists look at what consumers can afford, as shown in a budget constraint line, and the total utility or satisfaction derived from those choices. In a budget constraint line, the quantity of one good is measured on the horizontal axis and the quantity of the other good is measured on the vertical axis. The budget constraint line shows the various combinations of two goods that are affordable given consumer income. Consider the situation of José, shown in Figure 6.2. José likes to collect T-shirts and watch movies.

The points on the graph show how a budget is affected by spending choices. Spending more money at the movies (y-axis) means that Jose' has less money to spend on T-shirts (x-axis).

Figure 6.2. A Choice between Consumption Goods. José has income of $56. Movies cost $7 and T-shirts cost $14. The points on the budget constraint line show the combinations of movies and T-shirts that are affordable.

In Figure 6.2, the quantity of T-shirts is shown on the horizontal axis, while the quantity of movies is shown on the vertical axis. If José had unlimited income or goods were free, then he could consume without limit. But José, like all of us, faces a budget constraint. José has a total of $56 to spend. The price of T-shirts is $14 and the price of movies is $7. Notice that the vertical intercept of the budget constraint line is at eight movies and zero T-shirts ($56/$7=8). The horizontal intercept of the budget constraint is four, where José spends of all of his money on T-shirts and no movies ($56/14=4). The slope of the budget constraint line is rise/run or –8/4=–2. The specific choices along the budget constraint line show the combinations of T-shirts and movies that are affordable.

José wishes to choose the combination that will provide him with the greatest utility, which is the term economists use to describe a person’s level of satisfaction or happiness with his or her choices.

Let’s begin with an assumption, which will be discussed in more detail later, that José can measure his own utility with something called utils. (It is important to note that you cannot make comparisons between the utils of individuals; if one person gets 20 utils from a cup of coffee and another gets 10 utils, this does not mean than the first person gets more enjoyment from the coffee than the other or that they enjoy the coffee twice as much.) Table 6.2 shows how José’s utility is connected with his consumption of T-shirts or movies. The first column of the table shows the quantity of T-shirts consumed. The second column shows the total utility, or total amount of satisfaction, that José receives from consuming that number of T-shirts. The most common pattern of total utility, as shown here, is that consuming additional goods leads to greater total utility, but at a decreasing rate. The third column shows marginal utility, which is the additional utility provided by one additional unit of consumption. This equation for marginal utility is:

[latex]\displaystyle\text{MU}=\frac{\text{change in total utility}}{\text{change in quantity}}[/latex]

Notice that marginal utility diminishes as additional units are consumed, which means that each subsequent unit of a good consumed provides less additional utility. For example, the first T-shirt José picks is his favorite and it gives him an addition of 22 utils. The fourth T-shirt is just something to wear when all his other clothes are in the wash and yields only 18 additional utils. This is an example of the law of diminishing marginal utility, which holds that the additional utility decreases with each unit added.

The rest of Table 6.2 shows the quantity of movies that José attends, and his total and marginal utility from seeing each movie. Total utility follows the expected pattern: it increases as the number of movies seen rises. Marginal utility also follows the expected pattern: each additional movie brings a smaller gain in utility than the previous one. The first movie José attends is the one he wanted to see the most, and thus provides him with the highest level of utility or satisfaction. The fifth movie he attends is just to kill time. Notice that total utility is also the sum of the marginal utilities.

Table 6.2. Total and Marginal Utility
T-Shirts (Quantity) Total Utility Marginal Utility Movies (Quantity) Total Utility Marginal Utility
1 22 22 1 16 16
2 43 21 2 31 15
3 63 20 3 45 14
4 81 18 4 58 13
5 97 16 5 70 12
6 111 14 6 81 11
7 123 12 7 91 10
8 133 10 8 100 9

Table 6.3 looks at each point on the budget constraint in Figure 6.2, and adds up José’s total utility for five possible combinations of T-shirts and movies.

Table 6.3. Finding the Choice with the Highest Utility
Point T-Shirts Movies Total Utility
P 4 0 81 + 0 = 81
Q 3 2 63 + 31 = 94
R 2 4 43 + 58 = 101
S 1 6 22 + 81 = 103
T 0 8 0 + 100 = 100


Let’s look at how José makes his decision in more detail:

Step 1. Observe that, at point Q (for example), José consumes three T-shirts and two movies.

Step 2. Look at Table 6.2. You can see from the fourth row/second column that three T-shirts are worth 63 utils. Similarly, the second row/fifth column shows that two movies are worth 31 utils.

Step 3. From this information, you can calculate that point Q has a total utility of 94 (63 + 31).

Step 4. You can repeat the same calculations for each point on Table 6.3, in which the total utility numbers are shown in the last column.

For José, the highest total utility for all possible combinations of goods occurs at point S, with a total utility of 103 from consuming one T-shirt and six movies.