Self-Rationing: Self-Control in Consumer Choice

INSEAD Working Paper No. 2001/63/MKT

32 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2002

Date Written: November 2001


Many purchase and consumption choices are shaped by clear-cut constraints, either budgetary or temporal. You buy a house, for example, after considering your income, life expectancy, and the size of the mortgage you can obtain. But what about the constraints in smaller but repeated purchase and consumption decisions such as whether to see a movie or open a pack of cigarettes? On a local level, we tend not to make carefully calculated decisions. Rather, we often consume impulsively. This paper reviews emerging empirical evidence of how consumers with self-control problems cope with choice situations in which it is difficult to assess their constraints. It argues that impulsive consumers end up overconsuming their inventories of money, time, and goods when they try to make purchase and consumption decisions that do not involve clear-cut constraints. To protect themselves from overconsumption, they scale down their spending and consumption by self-imposing constraints, such as limiting their liquidity, mental budgeting, self-imposing deadlines, or rationing their purchases. For instance, it's difficult to have a clear temporal or budgetary overview when you're simply deciding whether to buy an expensive magazine, and that makes it all too easy to buy on impulse. However, you might resist temptation by imposing a rule on yourself that you can afford it only if you can pay cash instead of by credit card, or that you can only buy two magazines per week. While framing choices in such narrow terms may often induce economically suboptimal behavior, the local constraints employed by self-rationing can ultimately help consumers compensate for their inability to stick to imperceptible global constraints.

Keywords: consumer choice, impulsive behavior, marketing, mental accounting, psychology, rationing, self-control, time inconsistency

JEL Classification: A12, D60, D91, E21, M31

Suggested Citation

Wertenbroch, Klaus, Self-Rationing: Self-Control in Consumer Choice (November 2001). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2001/63/MKT, Available at SSRN: or

Klaus Wertenbroch (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Marketing ( email )

1 Ayer Rajah Ave.
Singapore, 138676


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