Rules for Maximizing Utility

Read this article to learn more about how to calculate marginal utility per dollar. Make sure to answer the "Try It" questions.

1. Introduction


  1. Explain why maximizing utility requires that the last unit of each item purchased must have the same marginal utility per dollar
  2. Calculate the utility-maximizing choice

The problem of finding consumer equilibrium, that is, the combination of goods and services that will maximize an individual's total utility, comes down to comparing the trade-offs between one affordable combination (shown by a point on the budget line in Figure 1, below) with all the other affordable combinations.

Most people approach their utility-maximizing combination of choices in a step-by-step way. This step-by-step approach is based on looking at the tradeoffs, measured in terms of marginal utility, of consuming less of one good and more of another. You can think of this step-by-step approach as the "biggest bang for the buck" principle. For example, say that José starts off thinking about spending all his money on T-shirts and choosing point P, which corresponds to four T-shirts and no movies, as illustrated in Figure 1.

The points on the graph show how a budget is affected by spending choices. Spending more money at the movies (y-axis) means t

Figure 1. 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.

José chooses this starting point randomly; he has to start somewhere. Then he considers giving up the last T-shirt, the one that provides him the least marginal utility, and using the money he saves to buy two movies instead. Table 1 tracks the step-by-step series of decisions José needs to make (Key: T-shirts cost $14, movies cost $7, and Jose's income is $56).

Table 1. A Step-by-Step Approach to Maximizing Utility

Try Which Has Total Utility Marginal Gain and Loss of Utility, Compared with Previous Choice Conclusion
Choice 1: P 4 T-shirts and 0 movies 81 from 4 T-shirts + 0 from 0 movies = 81
Choice 2: Q 3 T-shirts and 2 movies 63 from 3 T-shirts + 31 from 0 movies = 94 Loss of 18 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 31 from 2 more movies, for a net utility gain of 13 Q is preferred over P
Choice 3: R 2 T-shirts and 4 movies 43 from 2 T-shirts + 58 from 4 movies = 101 Loss of 20 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 27 from two more movies for a net utility gain of 7 R is preferred over Q
Choice 4: S 1 T-shirt and 6 movies 22 from 1 T-shirt + 81 from 6 movies = 103 Loss of 21 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 23 from two more movies, for a net utility gain of 2 S is preferred over R
Choice 5: T 0 T-shirts and 8 movies 0 from 0 T-shirts + 100 from 8 movies = 100 Loss of 22 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 19 from two more movies, for a net utility loss of 3 S is preferred over T

Source: Clark Aldrich,
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