Consumer Spending Patterns: Dimensions and Dichotomies

Patricia Ann Walsh, University of Connecticut
Susan Spiggle, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - Investigating consumer spending behavior, we present a set of related constructs derived from an analysis of interview data. These constructs form four dichotomous pairsCpresent/future orientation, control system/ no control system, experience of struggle/ no experience of struggle, and context dependent /independent. This conceptualization forms the basis for the design of a broader study of higher order consumer choices.
[ to cite ]:
Patricia Ann Walsh and Susan Spiggle (1994) ,"Consumer Spending Patterns: Dimensions and Dichotomies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 35-40.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 35-40

CONSUMER SPENDING PATTERNS: DIMENSIONS AND DICHOTOMIES

Patricia Ann Walsh, University of Connecticut

Susan Spiggle, University of Connecticut

ABSTRACT -

Investigating consumer spending behavior, we present a set of related constructs derived from an analysis of interview data. These constructs form four dichotomous pairsCpresent/future orientation, control system/ no control system, experience of struggle/ no experience of struggle, and context dependent /independent. This conceptualization forms the basis for the design of a broader study of higher order consumer choices.

Recently two intellectual leaders in consumer research (Andreasen 1993; Wells 1993) issued guidelines for steering the future direction of inquiry in the field. Both noted the current dearth of research on questions involving consumer budget allocation decisions. These questions are important, not only for expanding the scope of consumer research, but they have important macroeconomic implications.

This paper presents findings and analysis from a preliminary investigation into the savings and spending patterns of young adults. By examining financial allocation decisionsChigher order choicesCwe move beyond consumer researchers' focus on the brand level decisions made by individuals. Consumer behavior inquiry typically neglects the broad question of how individuals make financial resource allocation decisions. Thus, no established set of constructs, propositions, or models exist for guiding research on this question.

Therefore, we designed an inductive study with three goals: to gain theoretical insights into our informants' experiences in making money decisions; to develop constructs for guiding additional inquiry; and to specify initial relationships between the constructs.

DATA AND METHODS

As a first step toward realizing these goals, we conducted eight semi-structured, open-ended interviews with third and fourth year undergraduate students. The interviews covered a range of savings and spending decisions and elicited descriptions of specific incidents (Thompson et al. 1989).

We chose undergraduates for two reasons. (1) They have established a degree of financial responsibility, control, and independence, thereby allowing us to intercept a specific and important developmental stageCthe point at which patterns of money management are crystallizing. (2) Unlike older consumer groups, they make a wide range of independent consumption and expenditure decisions. Thus, we avoid the data collection and decision complexities of joint budget constraints, financial planning, and decision making in this initial phase of research.

Maximizing variations in comparison, for this paper we report on an analysis of spending decisions of four informants with markedly different patterns. We collectively coded and analyzed the transcripts of these four interviews. We read and re-read each transcript a number of times looking for similarities and differences between and within informants, identifying dimensions for every expenditure made by each informant. We produced a tabulation for each incident discussed. In a hermeneutical procedure, we then reanalyzed each transcript using this set of dimensions looking for commonalities in experiences across a diverse set of decisions. Finally, we synthesized this conceptualization into an integrated framework.

THE INFORMANTS

We present brief case study descriptions of experiential issues for four informants concerning their expenditures. For each informant we focus on their experiences across a range of spending situations.

David

David, a junior majoring in vocal performance, attempts to exert deliberation and control in his spending, although he allows himself some latitude for impulsive and "unneeded" indulgences.

During the interview he described various expenditures in which he exhibits impulsivity or maintains control. The context and definition of the purchase shape his degree of control and source of funds for his monetary outlay. He segregates his financial resources into three categoriesCcash in the bank, cash in the pocket, and a credit card. For David, each of these accounts permits him differing degrees of freedom and responsibility.

If I have cash on hand, I would tend to buy impulsively. If I do not have cash on hand I am much more careful...I wait until I really need it instead of going and wasting money.

In having the extra cash in the bank ... it prevents impulsive buying...when you have cash you can afford to wait.

In these passages David expresses his definition of different forms of cash. He defines cash in the bank as a reserveCliquidity available for meeting various financial obligations. By retaining it in the bank, he resists temptations to spend on unneeded purchases. However, he frequently carries a designated amount of pocket cash for indulging in impulsive spending. By restricting the amount, he creates boundaries on this type of spending. One of the ways he reduces his pocket cash is to carry his credit card.

...if I go to a restaurant, like I would use a credit card simply because I don't feel like having...to carry around three hundred dollars...just so you could spend say sixty, seventy, dollars to go to a really nice restaurant, and you don't have to take out that money and need an extra forty dollars...I would probably spend it if I had it...I'd spend it and I'd rather not spend it.

By using the credit card here, David restricts his cash-in-the-pocket, thus decreasing temptation to indulge in impulsive spending. David uses this control strategy in the context where costs are both not predefinable and of sufficient magnitude that residual cash in pocket exceeds his usual designated amount.

However, David's system for control sometimes fails. In another passage he describes a special occasionCspecial both in regard to the context and failure of control.

...for Valentine's Day my girlfriend and I...I was planning to go somewhere with her and...I took some money...say a hundred dollars, and I wanted to use all that money. I just wanted to spend that one day and use one hundred dollars only. And the night before I went and bought flowers, and I was very careful. And at the restaurant it came to about fifty dollars and that was well within our means...But then I went and used the credit card on that motor inn...and that kind of blew that for me...I had the cash with me for most of the weekend and knowing that it was marked for a specific purpose, that's what kept me from spending it, the cash I mean...It was in my pocket, but I knew that it was for a certain point in the future.

This passage illustrates the failure of David's strategy. Normally he uses the credit card to control spending, but here it facilitated impulse. The Valentine occasion provided a special context for David's experience and consequent behavior. In this context David experienced the confluence of three dimensionsCextraordinary occasion, calendar-defined timing, and romantic expressive desire. Despite his careful planning, in this context he exceeded his boundaries, departing from his normal behavior.

David defines himself as a spending realist.

I'm kind of a realist. If I know that I can't afford something, or if it's out of my range, I just don't have the desire for it.

But occasionally David permits himself some indulgences that remain within his boundaries for control. Unlike the Valentine indulgence which he defined as "[blowing] that for me", the purchase of Metropolitan Opera Tickets falls within a predefined comfort range for indulgent spending.

I go to the Met whenever I can...maybe 4 or 5 times a year...I enjoy spending my money on the seats...they range from $20 to $110 and we can get standing room tickets for $9 to $12...and sit in $110 seats [after intermission]...[for] Pavorotti and Kathaleen Battle.

Attending the Met represents a special context for DavidCwith two important dimensions. Attendance is intricately related to his self identity as a musical aficionado, and it includes good value, an important consideration for David across a wide range of purchases.

In contrast with the Met, a periodic expenditure, where David exercises deliberation, planning, and concern with good value, he occasionally buys compact discs. These purchases depart from his routine and desired patterns.

If I buy a CD lately, I would usually buy it on my credit card...only because to buy a CD I'd have to go to the ATM and take out $20...which would involve planning so,...I would buy them with my credit card because it would be an impulsive purchase. The reason is...the Public Library has...85% of what I want to hear...and, I, uh, tape it.

David attempts to resist purchasing CDs because he has an alternative means for getting recordings of the music. He resists the temptation by refusing to allocate pocket cash for this purposeCa strategy we see recurring in his interview. As in the Valentine case he gives in to the impulse to spend where he had deliberately restricted his pocket cash as a strategy to control impulse. In these two cases the credit card enabled the purchase of unplanned indulgences.

In summary, David described spending money for such items as dating, listening to music, paying bills and parking tickets, groceries, gasoline, stereo, and a racing bike. Throughout the interview David expressed concern for value and a desire to manage his financial resources with deliberation. To this end he creates boundaries that function as control strategies. Although sometimes he violates the boundaries, typically on impulses, his spending remains within a manageable range. In a dialectical fashion the credit card functions both to maintain and exceed his boundaries, depending on the context. Finally, he noted that he allows himself to indulge in a few big ticket itemsCextraordinary purchasesCwhen his earnings are greater.

Melissa

Melissa, a senior business major, attempts to exert spending deliberation and control, like David. However, she frequently exceeds a manageable range of spending comfort. Varied contexts induce different spending strategies. For example, she variously shows a strong sense of obligation to spend, great spending restraint, or spending indulgence.

Obligation to spend. In the context of social obligations, she plans by saving in advance, departing from her typical patterns.

I set aside a lot of my CO-OP money for my parents' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I just banked my first three paychecks...and it was a good thing that I did that, too. Otherwise, I probably would have spent it...I wanted to pay off a credit card bill that was quite high and is still quite high. And, instead, I chose to put the money away and spend it on my parents...it meant a lot to them for me and my brother and sister to throw this [party]...and now I'm glad that I didn't spend it paying off my own debts.

Melissa described a similar incident of putting money aside for another social obligationCexpenses for bridal shower, bridesmaid dress, rehearsal dinner dress, and bachelorette party for a friend. These examples, involving social commitments where she cannot control the timing of the spending, contrast with her typical spending patterns.

Spending restraint. She described a different pattern in two other purchases.

For the past five years of my life I walked past a Brookstone Store...and I'm just dying to get this foot massager, but its two hundred dollars and [it] feels so good on my feet and I just want this so much...You sit in the chair and put your foot on [it] and it's the best thing in the world. But it was two hundred dollars and I didn't have the money...I eventually broke down and bought it. I had to do a lot of careful consideration. I was not going to pay my bills for the next month if I bought this.

Melissa finally purchased it after five years when a friend working there offered to use his employee discount to help her buy it. She exhibited temporary restraint in another purchase.

I bought a wet suit for water skiing. And I really liked this wet suit because of its neon colors and the way that it looked on my body...I've been meaning to get one for a long time just because everybody had one. But every time we walked in the store these wet suits are like three hundred dollars...I couldn't justify spending that much money...This one particular wet suit was there for two seasons and was marked down considerably...[it] was on sale so I whipped out my charge card and charged it. When I was skiing that day...I felt more enthusiastic, I felt good about myself and I felt thin in this beautiful wet suit...Then later on that night...I realized how ridiculous it was that I just blew, like, almost three hundred dollars on a wet suit that I will probably wear once this summer and then never again for the rest of my life.

These purchases differed in several ways from the previous two. (1) Melissa purchased the wet suit and foot massager for herself, not others. She expected much personal pleasure from both based on their strong hedonic and sensory elements. (2) Calendar-defined timing did not impose a deadline on these expenditures, allowing her to engage in the transactions at her discretion. In the context of these purchases, when a deal became available Melissa spontaneously acquired these items. These acquisitions followed a long period of restraint, despite intense desires. During this period Melissa adapted to the idea of ownership of these items (Hoch and Loewenstein 1991), even consuming the benefits of the foot massager in frequent in-store trials. However, she made no specific plan to execute the purchases. As a result, she did not pre-allocate resources for their acquisition.

Spending indulgence. More typical of Melissa are instances where she indulges herself, employing no attempt to exercise willpower. She described "blowing" the balance of her CO-OP earnings (funds not allocated to her parents' anniversary party) and recurrent indulgences.

I made ten thousand dollars and it's all gone. I really had a good time...I went on a lot of trips, I spent a lot of money, and I have a lot of suits...I was very spontaneous with my money. I had no problem just going out to dinner...I had no problem going out to happy hour any day of the week, and plus, trips I took to Atlantic City, Boston, New York...I am sort of disappointed I blew all my money away, but hey, at least I had a good time doing it.

When I go to bars...I'll probably end up spending about twenty dollars an evening...occasionally when I come home from bars and I am very hungry, I have been known to purchase a pizza and eat it, or stop at Subway and get a steak and cheese...or Petro Pantry, or Store 24 to get a bean and beef buritto with cheese.

Contextual similarities between the preceding purchases include: funds available for discretionary spending, strong urges to indulge in personal, routine extravagances, and pursuit of hedonic and experiential gratification. Here we see Melissa indulging herself in a wide variety of recurrent purchases without exercising restraint. This pattern occurs across both low cost and high cost purchases and represents how Melissa's desires expand to fill available means.

In summary, Melissa's pattern of expanding desires to spend available money echoes David's (spending more when he was earning more). However, David's stereo and racing bike represent a few infrequently purchased goods, whereas Melissa's CO-OP expenditures represent a recurrent array of extravagances. Furthermore, during the period of more normally constrained income, she regularly indulges herself in consumables.

Melissa's highly varied and seemingly inconsistent patterns involve deliberation and spontaneity, restraint and indulgence, and responsibility and its neglect. However, the context of spending for Melissa shapes her behaviors consistently. Social obligations in the face of calendar-defined timing and extraordinary purchases dictate responsibility and restraint. Nonetheless, her typical spending behavior is driven by desire for immediate gratification through hedonic and experiential consumptionCtrips, going out, food. To the extent that available funds and credit permit, she generally shows no deliberation, no restraint, and no fiscal responsibilityCroutinely maintaining high outstanding credit card balances. Consequently, we see her ambivalence toward money.

Now I am starting to realize that I am hitting the real world next...May, and I won't have any money to support myself...I wish we never had anything called money. ...Money can cause a lot of problems, it's good and it's bad, I guess I just have a lot of mixed feelings on money.

Jason

Jason, a senior marketing major, routinely expends all of his available resources, including cash, credit cards, and parental permissiveness. In fact, Jason does not limit his spending to available resources, but engineers fiscal extensions.

My mother works at a credit union...so if I happen to get down to a low amount, I'll say Ma, can you give me about $500, and she can just add it right into that checking account because she's right there. It's much easier.

If my bike breaks, or if the ring guy just happens to show up the very last day and this is the last day he's going to be on campus and I have to buy my class ring that day, I just write out the check and call my mother that night and say could you place $170 in the account ...and it's done, there's noCit's very easy.

I got carried away...kinda kept going, maxing [credit cards] out right away...They wouldn't let me charge anymore. I was to my limit.

I get a new credit card in the mail...when one expires or something, I'll just get a new one.

Gaining expanded lines of financing triggers cyclical buying sprees for Jason. Typical items that Jason purchases on such a spree include cross training sneakers, basketball sneakers, jogging sneakers, jeans, and large stocks of school supplies and personal care items.

In addition to buying sprees where Jason spends freely, he also regularly spends freely on "relaxation necessities," Jason's term for leisure and entertainment expenditures. These include:

...not your daily necessities, but you still need them...well, party materials, like beer and stuff, going out, relaxation, the movies, maybe going away for the weekend...when it comes to partying...three to four times a week going out to the bars...I spend maybe $15 to $20 [per night].

The above passages in Jason's interview reflect two different spending patternsCcyclical and continual. In both cases he defines items purchased as necessities. In fact, Jason defines everything that he buys as necessary, frequently using the terms, necessities, I need, and essentials. As a consequence, he does not exercise restraint; he buys everything he "needs" and "needs" everything he buys. Thus, Jason never struggles with mounting willpower over desire. Desires are realized as needs.

Jason accumulates money in a cyclical fashion, also.

I normally just cash [my] check...kinda just keep that in a sock and spend it as needed. Sometimes my money flow catches up and then I blow a large amount on a weekend and then I'm right back to nothing, so I'm having trouble getting ahead.

One year I worked all semester, I'd worked all summer. I set aside all my money for that spring break and I just decided not to go...I guess as soon as I had all that money I didn't want to spend it...I saved about $700.

This incident of saving up for a particular purchase was a departure from his current typical behavior. (Although he did describe one similar incident of saving up to purchase golf clubs when he was in high school). However, when spring came Jason choose not to spend the money on a spring break trip.

And then I was like ooph I gotta like withdraw all that money? And then I said, I can't do that. I've got to leave it in there, I saved it this long, I'm just going to keep it a little bit longer.

Obviously, Jason did not "need" a spring break that year. (He did however, "need' one his senior yearChis last opportunity). Additionally, Jason hesitated to break his $700 accumulation, treating it as a threshold. Shortly thereafter a need compelled him to tap the fund.

I had $700 and I...needed basketball sneakers. I needed a pair for indoors, and the outdoor season was coming up. So I took my old indoor sneakers and transferred them to outdoor status and bought new indoor sneakers. And so that was about $110. And then I spentCI kept buying littleCit just went fast.

Once Jason crossed the threshold, he dribbled the rest away much like his sock money accumulation. But with his "sock money" he never accumulates a sufficient amount to constitute a critical threshold. He accumulates it over time and blows it at once.

In summary, Jason rarely exercises willpower over spending money. He avoids conflict (Hoch and Lowenstein 1991; Thaler and Shefrin 1981) between willpower and desire by defining strongly desired objects and social/leisure activities (going out) as necessities. Such a definition silences the voice of the foresighted planner (Thaler and Shefrin 1981), short-circuiting inner debate over the purchase decision. Further, he expands available sources of money to meet these needs. Although he described a prior incident of planning and saving, his current patterns reflect a short time horizon of immediate gratifications, where the shortsighted doer (Thaler and Shefrin 1981) dominates.

Susan

Susan, a senior majoring in business, rarely experiences struggle between willpower and desireCan outcome of her ability to moderate desires and to manage her money resources through careful planning and control. Her purchases are typically deliberate and contemplative, yet she does not believe she deprives herself. A Valentine trip to Boston with her boyfriend represents an exception to her normal experience.

Although I don't have a great amount of money right now, I'm going anyway (giggle)...there's a part of me saying you shouldn't go cause you don't have a lot of money to spend in Boston, but I'm going anyway (giggle). I'm sort of torn, but I want to go, soCI'm not a frugal person in the sense that if I want to do something, I will do it, unless I'm absolutely broke...I don't spend money just foolishly, like go to the store and buy something I don't need, but if I want something.

Here we see Susan's deliberative style, even in the face of the conflict between willpower and desire. The particular context of this decisionCjoint decision making (with boyfriend), extraordinary occasion (trip to Boston), and a timing mismatch between sources and uses of funds for the tripCgenerated this unusual conflict.

I just weigh the pros in the sense that you know it will be fun, you get away from here which is always a good thingC(giggle)Cgo to Boston...versus, you know it's going to be expensive and I don't get paid this coming week, so I'll get paid next week so, you know, I'll go for the weekend and get paid [next] Thursday...so that's good, but I'd rather get paid this Thursday, so I'd have it and wouldn't have to take it out of the bank.

For Susan, this conflict is not about using the money to go. She regrets having to withdraw money from an account, rather than being able to pay for it with cash already received from a paycheck.

More typically, Susan does not experience conflict because she regularly saves and budgets, indicating a strong sense of deferred gratification. For example, Susan allocates a specific amount for spending during the semester.

I've been going to school for four years, so I kind of know how much I spend in a semester. You know I haven't lived off campus beforeCthis is my first year. So I always paid my fee bills in the beginning, and then I didn't have to worry about rent or anything like that...I always knew what I spent, like $700 a semester, or something like that...You know that's how much I usually spent. I just know how much I spend.

Susan also designates a specific amount of money for spending during the week.

I don't spend more than twenty dollars during the week, like just going out, or you know just little purchases.

This twenty dollar limit covers routine, weekly expenditures. Additionally, Susan may also buy hosiery, shoes, or birthday gifts during the weekCexpenditures she covers easily by maintaining a sufficient precautionary savings balance.

I like the security of knowing that if I wanted to go and buy something that was more expensive, like a stereo, or something like that...if I wanted to go and buy it, I could ... [my roommate] had to worry about whether she's going to meet the rent payment. I mean, she just spends, but I could not do that because I like to have the security of knowing that if something happened and I needed money, it would-be there...[security means] avoiding bad circumstances and taking part in good ones.

Susan described a large, extraordinary expenditure that she was able to make due to her foresight. Her savings patterns provided sufficient funds for her to take part in a good circumstance.

The most money I've ever spent on anything was France. It was a couple of thousand dollars for tuition and expenses and travelling when I was there, and it would probably be the most substantial money that I've ever spent...my parents said if you think you have the money, and I did have the money, and they said, do you think this is really what you want to do, and I knew it was...it was...the best experience I ever had, travelling around Europe, and you do spend a lot of money, but it was worth it...I wouldn't rather have the money, I'd rather have the experience.

Overall, Susan is moderate, in control, deliberate, and contemplative. She erects boundaries that she easily maintains through her foresight and ability to delay gratification. Thus, when she wants something, she is able to buy it without conflict, because the money is available. Several factors contribute to this availability. (1) She works in an office during the summers and whenever she chooses during the semester. She also has several part-time jobs at school. Together, earnings from these jobs allow her financial independence. (2) She manages this income through established patterns of savings, planning, and budgeting. (3) She exercise deliberation when spending, avoiding impulse, frivolity, and unplanned purchases. However, she buys what she wants, experiencing no deprivation.

FIGURE

DISCUSSION

Our description of four informants reveals four rather different patterns of spending behavior. In addition to the differences between them, we also found interesting variations within each individual.

We identified and dichotomized four dimensions by comparing and contrasting experiential differences between and within the informants. We arrayed them across the four dichotomous dimensionsCstruggle/no struggle, context dependent/context independent, system of planning/no system of planning, present/future orientation. When we sorted the informants along each of these dimensions, we discovered that two of these dimensions coincide: (1) struggle and context dependence, and (2) system of planning and temporal orientation.

Struggle and context. We found that individuals who experienced struggles did so only when they behaved one way in a given context, and another way in other contexts. For example, Melissa struggled with the wet suit and foot massager decisions (personal, hedonic, time maneuverable, non-recurrent), but not with her parents' anniversary party or a friend's wedding (social obligation, calendar-defined timing), nor the more recurrent personal indulgences (routine, extravagant, funds available).

David experiences struggle in specific, but different contexts than Melissa. Typically, David attempts to plan and exert control over his purchases. He experienced struggle in the context of control failure (Valentine's Day and CDs). Alternatively, neither Jason nor Susan generally experience struggles. Their planning and control, or lack thereof, is consistent across varied contexts. Jason spends all of his available resources and more with little deliberation. Susan makes rational spending choices, planning for purchases and controlling her desires.

System of planning and temporal orientation. Further, we found that the individuals whose consumption is focused in the present generally lack established systems of planning and control over money. Jason and Melissa have large appetites for the immediately gratifying, particularly for recurrent self-indulgences. These present-oriented patterns eclipse attempts to regulate spending behaviors. Consequently, they have been unable to establish systems of regulation. Therefore, they live at the limit of present resources and have no accumulation of money from which to draw in the future. This lack of a system for planning and controlling spending then leads to recurrent feelings of deprivation.

In contrast, Susan and David have established systems for planning and controlling spending, even though David experiences periodic failures. Both are future oriented and routinely able to forgo spontaneous consumption whims. Their typical patterns of control, embodied in established systems, enable them to both resist and indulge in desires. This moderated behavior permits occasional indulgences that provides them with little sense of deprivation. Their ability to monitor their spending permits them to accumulate money which in turn facilitates future choices.

Summary. We found substantial variation in spending behavior across and within four informants. We discovered four related dimensions that capture these variations in behavior. Our conceptualization of the intersection of these four dimensions leads to a pairing of the dimensions and forms a fourfold space. We have placed the informants in the quadrant best characterizing their behavior. (See figure).

In effect, we can view these individuals as falling along continua of each dimension. For example, we can array Jason-Melissa-David-Susan along a dimension capturing the degree to which they have an established, effective system of control. Collapsing the dimensions into dichotomies, however, allows us to present the interrelationships of the dimensional pairs.

CONCLUSION

This initial investigation produced the conceptual groundwork to guide the data collection and analysis of a broader project on savings and spending behavior. The constructs and their provisional relationships suggest strategies for collecting additional data. They indicate specific questions to ask informants (for example, describe some decisions in which you felt conflicts about spending money, and some in which you did not). Further, they provide guidelines for selecting additional informants, using theoretical sampling (Strauss 1987), to maximize variations on these dimensions.

In this preliminary study of higher order choices we focused on young adults in college. We have recently conducted additional interviews with non-student young adults as part of investigating a broader socio-demographic range to establish the applicability (or modification) of these dimensions and determine their usefulness in formulating a model of spending behavior.

REFERENCES

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Strauss, Anselm L. (1987), Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thaler, Richard H. and Hersh M. Shefrin (1981), "An Economic Theory of Self-Control," Journal of Political Economics, 89 (2), 392-410.

Thompson, Craig J., William B. Locander, and Howard R. Pollio (1989), "Putting Consumer Experiences Back into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential-Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (Sept.), 133-146.

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