How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraints

Read this section to understand the concept of a budget constraint and how people make decisions when faced with this type of constraint. In economics, a budget constraint is a model that represents two possible things to choose from when spending some income. For example, suppose that you are a store manager and you have $100 to spend on two things for decorations for the store: flower arrangements at $10 each and posters at $5 each. A budget constraint for $100 will then be the different combinations with different number of flower arrangements and posters.

How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraint

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate and graph budgets constraints
  • Explain opportunity sets and opportunity costs
  • Evaluate the law of diminishing marginal utility
  • Explain how marginal analysis and utility influence choices

Consider the typical consumer's budget problem. Consumers have a limited amount of income to spend on the things they need and want. Suppose Alphonso has $10 in spending money each week that he can allocate between bus tickets for getting to work and the burgers that he eats for lunch. Burgers cost $2 each, and bus tickets are 50 cents each. Figure 2.2 shows Alphonso's budget constraint, that is, the outer boundary of his opportunity set. The opportunity set identifies all the opportunities for spending within his budget. The budget constraint indicates all the combinations of burgers and bus tickets Alphonso can afford when he exhausts his budget, given the prices of the two goods.

Figure 2.2 The Budget Constraint: Alphonso's Consumption Choice Opportunity Frontier Each point on the budget constraint represents a combination of burgers and bus tickets whose total cost adds up to Alphonso's budget of $10. The slope of the budget constraint is determined by the relative price of burgers and bus tickets. All along the budget set, giving up one burger means gaining four bus tickets.

The vertical axis in the figure shows burger purchases and the horizontal axis shows bus ticket purchases. If Alphonso spends all his money on burgers, he can afford five per week. ($10 per week/$2 per burger = 5 burgers per week). But if he does this, he will not be able to afford any bus tickets. This choice (zero bus tickets and five burgers) is shown by point A in the figure. Alternatively, if Alphonso spends all his money on bus tickets, he can afford 20 per week. ($10 per week/$0.50 per bus ticket = 20 bus tickets per week). Then, however, he will not be able to afford any burgers. This alternative choice (20 bus tickets and zero burgers) is shown by point F.

If Alphonso is like most people, he will choose some combination that includes both bus tickets and burgers. That is, he will choose some combination on the budget constraint that connects points A and F. Every point on (or inside) the constraint shows a combination of burgers and bus tickets that Alphonso can afford. Any point outside the constraint is not affordable, because it would cost more money than Alphonso has in his budget.

The budget constraint clearly shows the tradeoff Alphonso faces in choosing between burgers and bus tickets. Suppose he is currently at point D, where he can afford 12 bus tickets and two burgers. What would it cost Alphonso for one more burger? It would be natural to answer $2, but that's not the way economists think. Instead they ask, how many bus tickets would Alphonso have to give up to get one more burger, while staying within his budget? The answer is four bus tickets. That is the true cost to Alphonso of one more burger.

Source: Rice University,
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