How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraint

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. We can see Alphonso's budget problem in Figure.

The graph shows the budget line as a downward slope representing the opportunity set of burgers and bus tickets.
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 relative price of burgers and bus tickets determines the slope of the budget constraint. 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.) However, if he does this, he will not be able to afford any bus tickets. Point A in the figure shows the choice (zero bus tickets and five burgers). 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. Point F shows this alternative choice (20 bus tickets and zero burgers).

If we connect all the points between A and F, we get Alphonso's budget constraint. This indicates all the combination of burgers and bus tickets Alphonso can afford, given the price of the two goods and his budget amount.

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 is between 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? Since bus tickets cost 50 cents, Alphonso would have to give up four to afford one more burger. That is the true cost to Alphonso.