The Allocation of Time By Consumers

ABSTRACT - A model which parallels the process by which consumers allocate their time is proposed. Essential concepts, such as the relationship between goods and services and consumers' time, the classification of activities, etc., are further refined.


Philip E. Hendrix, Thomas C. Kinnear, and James R. Taylor (1979) ,"The Allocation of Time By Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 38-44.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 38-44


Philip E. Hendrix (student), University of Michigan

Thomas C. Kinnear, University of Michigan

James R. Taylor, University of Michigan

[The authors would like to thank F. Thomas Juster, University of Michigan, for his insightful comments.]


A model which parallels the process by which consumers allocate their time is proposed. Essential concepts, such as the relationship between goods and services and consumers' time, the classification of activities, etc., are further refined.


The notion of life-style has been applied extensively in the study of consumer behavior. (Wells and Cosmas, 1977) Though no definition is generally accepted (Ferber and Lee, 1974), the essence of the concept is well conveyed by the following:

Life style research is a sociological concept which deals with time and energy (and money) allocation where the individual has a choice of one activity or another. (Demby, 1971)

The preeminence of the resource of time in the life styles of consumers has been suggested by nicosia and mayer (1976, p. 68):

It may well be that time is the crucial dimension [of consumption activities] since its supply is fixed. The interdependence among all kinds of activities because of the fixed supply of time has strong implications for the study of a society's consumption.

And yet, despite the integral nature of time in consumer behavior (Schary, 1970), no major conceptual treatment or systematic empirical effort has emerged. (Jacoby et al, 1976, p. 330)

This paper is intended to partially fill this conceptual void by developing a framework from which subsequent empirical analysis of the allocation of time by consumers may proceed.


The view of activities as productive processes is an integral element of the theory underlying consumers' allocation of time. (Becker, 1965) Essentially, an activity may be regarded as a process associated with which are certain desired outcomes. Also associated with activities are the inputs of time, energy, and goods and services which may be combined in varying proportions to effect the desired outcomes. To illustrate these concepts, the activity of meal cleanup may be utilized. The desired outcome associated with this activity may be the restoration of the dining area, dishes, utensils, etc., to some satisfactory level of cleanliness. This may be achieved in a variety of fashions, each of which represents a different combination of the inputs of time, energy, and goods and services. For instance, one may hold the energy and goods inputs to a minimum at the expense of time by washing the dishes and utensils in the traditional manner at a relatively leisurely pace. Alternatively, one's time and energy inputs may be held to a minimum by incorporating such goods and services as disposable plates and utensils, a dishwasher, or even a maid. Other activities - meal preparation, procurement of goods, maintenance of one's possessions, recreation, etc. - may be thought of similarly.

From this perspective, one can see how both the types and levels of desired outcomes may affect the mix of inputs. For instance, an individual whose set of desired outcomes includes both physical conditioning and socializing may select an entirely different activity -perhaps tennis - from that of an individual whose only objective is physical conditioning. The mixes of time, energy, and goods and services are likely to differ as well. Similarly, one who engages in various activities - say, meal preparation and maintenance of home and auto - in hopes of contributing to his or her sense of accomplishment may be expected to utilize a mix of inputs unlike those of an individual who has no such objectives. We might expect the latter to spend less time in such activities, perhaps opting for prepared foods and the services of the local handyman and mechanic, respectively, as inputs to the above activities.

One other aspect of this framework is worth amplifying - that is the relationship between goods or services and the time input to activities. Depending upon whether the absence of the good or service would increase or decrease the 'amount of time devoted to a given activity, goods or services may be classified as either substitutes or complements, respectively, for the time input to that activity. Thus, a telephone may be a substitute for the time spent shopping and a complement to the time devoted to corresponding with distant relatives. Though classification rests upon the resulting impact on time, general patterns of usage suggest that substitutes include such items as partially prepared foods, restaurants, dishwashers, aluminum siding, and automatic car washes, while complements include gourmet cooking classes, tennis rackets, theatres, and televisions, to name a few.


Having established the notion of activities as productive processes, Becker (1965) suggests that the inputs of goods and time will be combined according to the cost minimization rules of the traditional theory of the firm. Amplifying this proposal, Linder (1970, p. 44) proposed that "time will necessarily be distributed over different sectors of use in such a way that the yield on time is everywhere the same." (1970, p. 44) Thus the optimal allocation of one's time would equate the marginal utility associated with each of the activities in which one may engage.

Because time is apportioned within a fixed budget constraint, the choice of activities to which time is devoted creates opportunity costs. Economists have traditionally valued these opportunity costs at the individual's rate of pay. (Evans, 1972, p. 1)

In classical theory, opportunity costs [are] the goods and services one does not buy, lacking the wages that could have been earned had the [time] been spent at work. (Bell, 1975, p. 559)

These opportunity costs are then incorporated into analyses of a broad range of consumer behaviors, such as locus of food consumption (Prochaska and Schrimper, 1973), mode of travel (Devany, 1974), family size (Sawhill, 1977), and even participation in organized religious activities (Azzi, 1975).

Implicit in this approach is an assumption of virtually complete latitude in the allocation of one's time. Such an assumption belies reality for a significant number of individuals and activities. Nor has this assumption escaped criticism. (Morgan, 1968; Mabry, 1970; Hameed, 1972; Evans, 1972) Bell summarizes the argument against the traditional valuation nicely:

One difficulty with the current economic theory of time as the basic unit of expenditure for both consumption and work is that it assumes an easy substitution between hours of work and hours of consumption. Such a state of affairs does not, of course, describe reality for the vast majority of earners, whose opportunities to increase or decrease their hours on the Job are sharply circumscribed. The alternative to one kind of consumption activity may not, realistically, be using the time at work but spending it in another form of consumption activity. (1975, p. 563)

Even the choice of non-work activities to which time may be allocated is circumscribed. What may be called anterior conditions compel one to devote some amount of time to certain activities. For instance, physiological requisites stipulate at least some minimum amount of time for sleeping and eating. Similarly, the parent of two small children has certain time commitments, ceteris paribus, which a childless individual either does not have, e.g., child care, or has to a lesser degree, e.g., meal preparation or laundry. Similar relationships between anterior conditions and the time input to various activities are depicted in Table 1, where again "mediating factors" (to be dealt with subsequently) are assumed constant.



Of course, the latitudinal constraints posed by these conditions may dissipate or be alleviated over a longer period of time - children mature, people change jobs, families move, [Michelson (1973), examining the relationship between moving behavior and deficits in one's socio-physical environment, posits residential moves as a response designed to alleviate these constraints.] etc. Other conditions are likely to take their place, however. While the children have grown, the health of the spouse or grandparents may have deteriorated. Or the newer, larger home with the expansive lawn may require even more upkeep than the preceding residence. Thus, even one's non-work time must inevitably be allocated within the latitudinal constraints posed by various anterior conditions.

Because it ignores these constraints, the equilibrium model of time allocation is an inadequate approximation of reality for our purposes. Before specifying a more tenable model of time allocation, however, a taxonomy of activities consistent with this notion of latitude must be developed.


A prerequisite to the modeling of time allocation is the classification of activities in some meaningful fashion. This is no easy task. Attempting to classify activities as either obligatory or discretionary, Chapin (1974, pp. 70-71) noted the difficulties:

...An exact assignment of an activity to either category would require interpretation of the activity in the context of a number of contingencies - meaning ascribed to that activity by the culture and the social system in which the subject falls, the culturally defined household role being performed by the subject at the time of the activity, the subject's own taste and preference, situational factors surrounding the occurrence of each such activity, [and the time frame].

Before settling on a somewhat arbitrary method of classification, Chapin experimented with a number of alternative approaches. In one, subjects were asked to classify their own activities. Variability in the definition of the concept "discretionary" employed by subjects made for inconclusive results, however. In another approach, supplemental data were gathered to enable the researcher to classify the activities according to predetermined criteria, such as how long prior to an activity had a decision been made to engage in that activity. Respondent fatigue rendered this approach unacceptable, though. Robinson (1977, p. 134) suggests three attributes - enjoyable, discretionary, and spontaneous - which distinguish leisure or free-time activities from obligatory activities. Citing a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study which attempted to identify the discretionary and spontaneous elements of activities, Robinson noted:

While there is some correspondence between the discretionary nature of an activity and its spontaneous or enjoyable character, ... it is far from complete. It is hoped that these [indeterminate] results will stimulate further research into operational definitions of [uses] of time. (1977, pp. 137-138)

Regardless of the means by which activities are classified, a dichotomy is entirely too restrictive. Dichotomies of activities, such as labor-leisure or obligatory-discretionary, ignore the set of activities which contain elements of both obligation and discretion. As DeGrazia (1962, p. 93) has noted, "things with a sense of obligation may also be felt as enjoyable," citing the care of children as an example. Bell (1975, p. 559)lends support by noting certain activities - sleeping, eating, etc. - which cannot be neatly assigned to either category of the "artificial leisure-labor dichotomy." Finally, Chapin (1974, p. 37) himself has observed:

In between obligatory and discretionary, the assignment of an activity to one or the other category can vary with the person and the circumstances.

There is no reason to cling to such a clearly inappropriate taxonomy. Extending the propositions developed earlier, activities arrayed along a continuum according to the degree of latitude one has in determining in the short run the amount of time so employed [As Chapin (1974) proposed, though he subsequently classified activities as either obligatory or discretionary.] fall into three somewhat discrete categories. At one end of the continuum are inelastic activities in which the individual has no latitude in determining the time input. Employment, for some, may fall within this category (though not for others, e.g., professionals or self-employed, who may exercise some degree of latitude.) At the other end of the continuum are discretionary activities in which one may exercise virtually complete latitude in so employing one's time, e.g., socializing, recreation, etc. In between these extremes are intermediate activities, with which is associated some latitude. Intermediate activities, which may include house care, personal care, meal preparation, child care, etc., are distinguished from discretionary activities by the fact that, as suggested earlier, anterior conditions very often stipulate some commensurable time expenditure. Neither are intermediate activities of the same cast as inelastic activities, as evidenced by the multitude of both complementary and substitute goods and services designed to capitalize on that very degree of latitude which individuals may exercise.

This taxonomy of activities corresponding to the dimension of latitude alleviates the indeterminacy of traditional classificatory schemes. Moreover, it is quite efficient as an analytical framework from which to examine the allocation of time.


Time, of course, cannot be stored.

A unique property of time as an indicator is that if time is saved or lost on one activity the time devoted to other activities will either increase or decrease as a result. (Robinson, 1977)

If the exhaustiveness of the proposed taxonomy may be assumed - that is, any activity in which one may engage can be classified into one of the three categories-then the various allocations of a period of time, say, 24 hours, may be portrayed graphically in a space the dimensions of which are the time inputs to inelastic, intermediate, and discretionary activities, as shown in Figure 1. Individual A, for instance, is one whose day is consumed largely by inelastic and intermediate activities, while B, free of inelastic activities, devotes more time to both discretionary and intermediate activities.



Furthermore, as the time required by inelastic activities increases (decreases), the time allocated to the set of elastic activities - comprised of intermediate and discretionary activities - must decrease (increase) by a commensurate amount. Corresponding to any level of inelastic activities, a time-budget constraint connects the combinations of time expenditures to discretionary and intermediate activities which exhaust the balance of time remaining after the time input to inelastic activities is subtracted from total time. For instance, one with no inelastic activities has 24 hours which must be allocated to some combination of discretionary and intermediate activities. One whose inelastic activities require 8 hours per day has 16 hours which must be allocated to discretionary and intermediate activities.

It may be argued that the allocation of time to elastic activities within the time-budget constraint is of most significance, since these are the activities characterized by at least some degree of latitude (in the short run). This is the position taken here. Thus, we treat the time-budget constraint as a given which can only be altered in the short-run by some unusual event, e.g., a change in Jobs, retirement, etc., and focus on the allocation of time to discretionary and intermediate activities.

This is not to say that a shift in the time-budget constraint is irrelevant. Indeed, an issue of fundamental importance is the impact of a relaxation (or, conversely, a contraction) of the time-budget constraint on individuals' patterns of time allocation, or stated in more conventional terms, on individuals' choices of activities. Figure 2 shows a number of quite plausible responses. A and B represent somewhat dissimilar responses to a relaxation of the time-budget constraint (from 16 to 24 hours, perhaps brought on by retirement, In B, the individual devotes equal amounts of his increment of 8 hours to both discretionary and intermediate activities (perhaps enabled by a simultaneous move to a retirement community). In C, the individual responds to a contraction of four hours (perhaps brought on by the advent of a part-time job) by reducing the time devoted to intermediate and discretionary activities by 3 and 1 hours, respectively. The contraction of 4 hours in D, perhaps due to the individual moving from a part-time to a full-time job, has a different impact, however, with discretionary activities reduced more so than intermediate activities. An individual who takes a half-time job, in addition to the full-time job he already has, as depicted in E, may respond similarly.



Since the latitude an individual has in allocating some minimum of time to intermediate activities is governed by anterior conditions, as proposed earlier, we might expect intermediate activities to become less elastic relative to discretionary as the time budget constraint becomes increasingly restrictive, as D and E in Figure 2 would suggest. As the time-budget constraint becomes increasingly relaxed, however, individuals exercise increasing latitude in their allocation of time to either intermediate or discretionary activities. With the structural changes occurring throughout society - women entering the work force, four-day weeks, early and postponed retirements, etc. - individual and aggregate responses to changes in time-budget constraints take on increased significance. These responses would best be examined longitudinally. (See Hawes, 1977, for an alternative approach) Cross-sectional data drawn from a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study (Robinson, 1977, pp. 35, 53), reclassified into the categories developed here, may provide some insight. Women with different levels of inelastic activities showed the patterns of time allocation depicted in Figure 3.

It is instructive to examine these data from a slightly different perspective. Figure 4 depicts the difference between the time allocated to intermediate activities and the time given to discretionary activities as it varies with the time taken up by inelastic activities. The initial decrease is due to a larger contraction in intermediate activities than discretionary activities, which supports the contention that, at least beyond some minimum, there is considerable latitude in the time input to intermediate activities. The upturn in Figure 4 is due to the time input to intermediate activities declining less rapidly than the time input to discretionary activities, which supports the premise that intermediate activities become less elastic as the time budget constraint become more restrictive.





Despite considerable methodological advances in the study of time (see Juster, forthcoming), reliable data, especially longitudinal data, are difficult and expensive to gather, a factor which will undoubtedly continue to inhibit exploration of the issues posed above. Examination of factors associated with existing patterns of time allocation may be revealing, though.

It should be obvious that consumers with the same amount of time to allocate to either discretionary or intermediate activities may do so quite dissimilarly. As suggested earlier, certain anterior conditions are likely to generate diverse patterns of time (and therefore, money) allocation. Of course, marketers have recognized these associations, as evidenced by the use of such factors as stage in family life cycle, age, etc., as bases for marketing strategies. But, significantly, there is not an absolute correspondence between anterior conditions and time expenditures (just as the correspondence between anterior conditions and money expenditures is not absolute).

For example, while we may expect a positive relationship between size of dwelling and time spent cleaning house, we are likely to observe some individuals residing in smaller homes spending more time cleaning house than others residing in larger homes, even when other anterior conditions which may account for this, e.g., stage in family life cycle, are held constant.

A well specified model of time allocation must incorporate factors which account for these deviations from the time expenditures predicted by anterior conditions. Such mediating factors may include the allocations of time by others, the position of one's time-budget constraint, accessibility, satisfaction, role ideology, and resources, each of which will be discussed in turn.

The allocations of time by others with whom one interacts may mediate one's own time allocation. For instance, one's spouse who does all of the cooking, cleaning, and shopping substantially reduces such time expenditures by that individual. The choices of activities by one's children, peers, etc., likewise govern one's time allocations.

As suggested earlier, the position of one's time-budget constraint is likely to impinge upon one's allocation of time. Highly restrictive time-budget constraints are likely to minimize or eliminate the time input to discretionary activities.

The relationship between accessibility and individuals' allocations of time is well stated by Chapin, from the area of urban planning: activity pattern is contingent not only on a propensity or readiness to engage in that activity, but also on there being an opportunity to engage in that activity in the sense that a facility, service, or other instrumental means is available which permits the activity to take place. (1974, p. 33)

Clearly, the absence of other people with whom to interact severely limits one's time so employed. Similarly, a lack of shopping facilities may limit the time devoted to that activity.

The time devoted to an activity is likely to correspond closely to the relative satisfaction derived from so employing one's time, as Robinson has documented, though the direction of causality is indeterminate (Stone, 1972, p. 181) - e.g., do people allocate their time to those activities which yield the most satisfaction, or do people derive satisfaction from activities on which they spend most of their time. The relationship is strongest, however, between satisfaction and highly discretionary activities, prompting Robinson to conclude:

We suspect, therefore, that even daily routine evolves from a process in which individuals selectively find those activities that are psychologically rewarding and arrange their lives in such a way that participation in these activities can be scheduled more frequently. (1977, p. 191)

Satisfaction is especially likely to distinguish among individuals' time expenditures for activities such as meal preparation, home and auto maintenance, etc., for which goods and services are readily available to substitute for one's time input and which are undoubtedly characterized by a wide range of satisfaction across people. [Arndt and Gronmo (1977), examining the time devoted to shopping, suggest that much of the variation which their model failed to capture is likely due to the psycho-social functions performed by stores, e.g., their ability to provide satisfaction to some shoppers more so than others. Also of interest is the development of a social indicator, Lambda, by Hobson and Mann (1975), based on the discrepancy between the amount of time individuals would like to spend in various activities versus the amount of time they actually spend in same.]

Role ideology is a construct which signifies an individual's perception of the degree of correspondence between his or her time input to an activity and the output which results. That is, to what extent does the individual see his or her time input as a necessary prerequisite to some outcome? An oft-cited example in marketing textbooks is that of the early cake mixes which were ill-received supposedly because they required no input on the part of the housewife. Such a role ideology may govern the substitutability of goods and services for the time input to such activities as meal preparation and child care, especially.

The mediating factor of resources provides an individual with the means to exercise a considerable degree of latitude in his or her time allocation. Resources enable one to more readily substitute goods and services (e.g., dishwasher, microwave oven, etc.) for one's time input to certain activities as well as open up a whole range of activities (e.g., photography, boating, gardening, etc.) which call for certain complementary products. "Inferior pursuits" (Linder, 1972, p. 82) - activities for which the time expenditure declines as income rises -are commonly thought to include such activities as housework, though Robinson (1977, p. 69) failed to uncover any such relationship. This does not necessarily mean that the more affluent do not shift their time from less pleasant household activities (say, meal clean-up) to more pleasant ones (say, gourmet cooking). To be more precise, the resource factor most likely interacts with the factor of satisfaction to enable the individual to re-allocate his or her time to relatively preferred activities.

Thus, a more complete specification of the model of time allocation must incorporate both anterior conditions and mediating factors, as depicted in Figure 5.




Activities may be viewed as processes, associated with which are the inputs of time, energy, and goods and services and desired outputs. While the economists have suggested how these inputs are likely to be combined, their model is unsuitable since it ignores constraints posed by anterior conditions on the latitude with which individuals allocate time. A taxonomy of activities corresponding to the degree of latitude one has in determining the time so employed alleviates the indeterminacy of traditional classifications. The allocation of time to the set of elastic activities, e.g., discretionary and intermediate activities, is seen as taking place within some time-budget constraint imposed by the allocation of time to inelastic activities. Finally, mediating factors are likely to account for variation in patterns of time allocation left unexplained by anterior conditions.


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Philip E. Hendrix, (student), University of Michigan
Thomas C. Kinnear, University of Michigan
James R. Taylor, University of Michigan


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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