Limited Means and What I Can't Buy: Resource Constraints and Resource Use Accessibility Drive Opportunity Cost Consideration

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Every consumer decision incurs a cost. An hour spent researching products is an hour not spent working. Vacation days used in the winter are vacation days not used in the summer. A dollar spent on a car payment is a dollar not spent dining out. What determines the extent to which consumers consider such opportunity costs when making decisions?

Although every purchase requires an outlay cost (i.e., spending dollars in order to obtain a good), outlay costs only have economic significance because some other good or service must be given up as a result. Consumers have unlimited wants but limited resources, so satisfying one want means not satisfying another (the opportunity cost). An opportunity cost is "the evaluation placed on the most highly valued of the rejected alternatives or opportunities" (Buchanan 2008) or "the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen" (Oxford English Dictionary 2010). Opportunity costs are foundational to the science of economics and, normatively, consumers should account for opportunity costs in every decision they make. I define opportunity cost consideration as "considering alternative uses for one's resources when deciding whether to spend resources on a focal option."

Because consumers face opportunity costs, every purchase decision is effectively a choice among alternative resource uses, not just a decision of whether or not to make a particular purchase. When consumers consider their opportunity costs, alternative resource uses specify the broadest form of competition that products face: each resource use competes for share-of-wallet with all other potential resource uses. Understanding when consumers consider a purchase decision as an allocation across multiple options, and what those considered options are, allows researchers and practitioners to better understand why consumers make the purchases that they do, why they restrain from making the purchases that they do not, and how to influence purchases of focal options by increasing or decreasing consideration of alternative resource uses.

What determines when consumers consider opportunity costs? In Essay 1, I propose that consumers consider opportunity costs when they perceive immediate resource constraints. In Essay 2, I propose that consumers consider opportunity costs when the resource in use increases the accessibility of alternative resource uses in memory.

Beyond addressing when consumers consider opportunity costs, I address three additional questions. First, who is more likely to consider opportunity costs? Individuals with a high propensity to plan are likely to consider opportunity costs even when they are not immediately constrained. Second, which opportunity costs are consumers more likely to consider? Consumers are more likely to consider opportunity costs that are more typical of the category of possible resource uses than opportunity costs that are less typical of the category of possible resource uses. Third, what are the consequences of opportunity cost consideration? Individuals who consider their opportunity costs are more sensitive to their value than those who do not consider them. In addition to aiding our understanding of the consumer decision process, understanding opportunity cost consideration has important implications for consumers' sensitivities to the structure of the decision environment, understanding the nature of competition and cross-price elasticities, memory for foregone options, and construction of preferences.





Spiller, Stephen Andrew (2011). Limited Means and What I Can't Buy: Resource Constraints and Resource Use Accessibility Drive Opportunity Cost Consideration. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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