Gaming The System: Score Points With Your Savings

I'm at a bit of a personal-finance plateau. I've conquered my credit cards. I'm chipping away at my loans using the same tactics that helped me pay off the plastic debt. I'm living about as frugally as I comfortably can. I can cut back a little extra here and there, but for the most part the big changes have been made.

My problem now: I'm bored! For a few years there, paying off debt was an exciting hobby. I was constantly looking for new ways to save. Juggling my household budget meant stretching new skills every month. Tracking my spending was an interesting challenge, full of surprising data about where my money really went.

Now I know that stuff cold. Which doesn't mean I use it perfectly every time. Far from it. Boredom makes me sloppy. Sure, I know how to track my spending. But I've climbed that mountain. Do I really have to go back up it every month? You mean I'm supposed to write down everything I spend right now? This cup of coffee? Please! Who has time. That was so last year.

Waiting for a Win
Another problem with my personal-finance plateau is that it's less rewarding. While I was paying the credit cards off, they seemed endless, like an albatross around my neck. But really, they were the low-hanging fruit on my personal-finance tree.

Every few months I'd score big by paying off and retiring another credit card. The small debts are all paid and I'm on to the big ones: the car loan, the student loans. Things that I'll pay off in a few years, not months. Looming on the horizon, I can see an even bigger problem: my debts to myself.

When I've dug my out of this debt hole, I won't have time to rest on my laurels. I'll owe my future self all the money I'm currently using to pay off my past. My retirement savings are woefully behind, and my kids' college funds won't cover their textbooks. I have a lifetime of work ahead of me.

How can I make this fun again?

Making it a Game
Here's an interesting idea I came across recently: make it a game. Set up a monthly challenge for yourself, and score points when you make it. Sounds silly, right? But it might also be fun. If you're the competitive type, you can make it a contest with your spouse or housemates.

What kind of game you choose is up to you. You can make one up, from the simple to the truly outrageous.

Game #1: Save for Prizes!
One simple way is to set a savings goal with a prize at the end. Make it something fun, something you want, and something manageable. Not a house in the Bahamas; more like a new dining room table.

A good friend told me a childhood story about how he and his sister earned a color TV as kids. Their dad told them that each month that the utility bills were lower than they'd been the same month a year before, he'd put $5 in a savings jar for them. When there was a enough to buy a TV, the kids could have one.

My friend and his sister, as you might imagine, became experts at saving heat and turning off lights. They earned their TV, and went on to keep cutting back the utility bills to win other prizes. Best of all: they learned new skills that still serve them well decades later.

Game #2: Have a Piggy Bank Contest
Another fun savings game, if you feel like making it a contest: set up competing piggy banks with your spouse. Take two jars, and see who can save the most spare change in one month. Each of you throws your leftover spending money and spare change in one each night. At the end of the month, you can pool your resources and use the money towards a date night. The biggest saver gets to pick the venue.

Game #3: Score Points
Your budget is really tight. You don't have spare change to play with. The prize you want is to make your ends meet this month, not save up cash for a new couch or a night out on the town. I hear you.

That is often how I feel: all my spare change is spoken for in debt repayment and savings goals. Long term goals like building my emergency fund, not replacing my 20-year-old sofa.

You can still make your savings a game. Just set up a system to score points instead of earning real-world prizes. Can you cut your utility bills by 5% this month? Give yourself a gold star, or the equivalent. Setting out a few small, bite-size goals will give you the reward of achieving them each month, even when the real milestones like “getting out of debt” or “having a fully-funded emergency fund” seem hopeless far away.

Epic Win
You can apply this principle to other areas of your life as well, like health and time management.

I was inspired by the Epic Win iPhone app, which turns your to-do list into a roleplaying game. You get points for finishing tasks, and your character gradually gains levels of experience. That might make Epic Win the only roleplaying game where you, the player, have to perform a task to actually get experience points. You could make your savings goals into to-do tasks and use Epic Win to play your savings game!

Another source of inspiration: Health Month.com, where you can play a game to create healthy habits for yourself. Based on the idea that you know what to do, and how to do it, you just need some motivation, Health Month is exactly the kind of “game” that will get me into shape.

Surely there's a personal-finance equivalent of these computer games out there, but I haven't found it yet. Do you have one you love, GRS readers? Or maybe we can all work together to design one in the comments below…

More about...Psychology

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
42 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Wes Y
Wes Y
10 years ago

It’s a lot more fun to see how much money you can MAKE in a month, rather than what percentage of the same old income you can save. get out and earn more!

Derek
Derek
10 years ago

Great Ideas!

It’s true, after a while, saving money and digging your way out of debt becomes old and stale. We need to make games for ourselves so that we can still have fun and not deviate from paying down those debts!

I have recently felt that stale feeling and have written many articles about continued focus as well! Once we are completely out of debt, my wife and I are going on a cruise!

http://www.lifeandmyfinances.com

Elle
Elle
10 years ago

We keep track of our net worth on a month basis to motivate ourselves to increase the number. it’s kind of fun to see some results from your efforts on paper (or spreadsheet in our case).

As for savings, we have target goals for the sub-savings account. My car is 10 years old; not a clunker, but it’s slowly starting to need more and more mechanical attention. We started a car replacement fund and having a specific number in mind is an incentive that works for us.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I totally have this problem. Saving is not nearly as exciting as killing debt. I try to maintain motivation by tracking our net worth at networthiq.com and by tracking our savings goals via our excel spreadsheet. But still I don’t find it very exciting and it is hard to maintain motivation. I think that in 2011 we’ll focus more on paying down the mortgage b/c I think it will be easier for me to stay motivated about that goal (even if it takes years).

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

I think you are on embarking on a way more exciting part of personal finance. Just like you enjoyed watching your debt level go down, you should be watching your investments go up! This should not be boring at all, this should be very exciting. I have no idea how much you know about investing, but if you need to learn more, go learn it, and start saving!!! That is way more interesting that crawling out of debt in my opinion. You can never cut all your expenses, but your income potential is unlimited. Which would you really rather focus… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Great post! Keeping motivated is important.

We just put all the boring goals on auto-payment so we don’t have to think about them. But that’s not going to work in all cases, especially with irregular income.

Congrats on finishing off those difficult goals, and good luck building up your financial security!

Karen in minnesota
Karen in minnesota
10 years ago

I can relate to this!

Like Elle (#3), I try to stay focused by watching my progress on graphs showing my net worth or 529 college savings account balance. But it’s pretty dry stuff.

I wish more personal finance blogs would address this issue: how to maintain focus once you aren’t desperately worried about your finances anymore. So many of the sites seem to focus primarily on those who are naive about personal finance or in deep trouble. What about the rest of us?

Ken Montville
Ken Montville
10 years ago

I can relate. I was able to get rid of the credit cards and the car loans. Now, it’s the actual saving part – for new (used) cars when these need to be replaced, new roof, new HVAC system (both are getting old) and, of course, retirement.

It’s tough to keep to a budget when we’re constantly bombarded with buy, buy, buy (and it’s our patriotic duty to spend the economy back to health, right?). It’s kinda fun to see a bank balance grow but it’s so damn s-l-o-w.

Brent
Brent
10 years ago

For me the key is to use the same strategy. Set a plan and automate it. Then set warnings to let you know when something goes awry. Ignore the markings on the ground, its a long haul not a sprint. You are better of staying in “the zone” unless you are falling behind.

Alex
Alex
10 years ago

My husband and I play Robert Kiyosaki’s Cashflow 101 game. We get friends together when we can at our house and teach them to play. We often feel like we don’t know very much about personal finance, but when we teach others we realize how much we do know. The game has you role play a certain profession, with income and expenses built in. You can decide to buy houses, you get stuck buying “Stuff” called “Doodads” in this game. It’s fun to reach the end of the game and you are talking about $50k plus a month in passive… Read more »

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
10 years ago

I think that blogging about frugality keeps it fresh. I am constantly hearing from Non-Consumer Advocate readers about changes they’re making in their lives, which helps me from going into the frugality “dead zone.”

Keep at it Sierra, and maybe read a few of those review books on your desk. They might relight your flame.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

Mimi
Mimi
10 years ago

I am totally in the same rut! My husband and I have been on a budget now for just over a year. We paid off almost $20,000 in debt in the first 4 months and another $20,000 since (wow, now that I look at those numbers, we did really really good!). But I still have $40,000 in student loans. My husband hasn’t had a job for 6 months and it seems like we’re crawling forward with paying them off. I haven’t bought clothes for so long that my husband is making me go shopping for clothes tomorrow because he says… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
10 years ago

I agree with Katy #11. Blogging about finance is like competing with the other personal finance blogs on who could save and invest the most money. It’s quite a lot of fun.

beachbound
beachbound
10 years ago

I’m all for saving, budgeting, and whatever else, but don’t these “games” take up so much mental time? It just seems stressful thinking about money or debt all the time, but then again I don’t let money matters take over my life, even though I’m in debt (and working on it). I’d rather go hiking and clear my mind.

Just automate if you’re able to, and enjoy everything else!

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
10 years ago

I have recently become slightly obsessed with my NetworthIQ rank. I like trying to focus on moving ahead of the person in front of me or moving to the next page. Sometimes it’s a longer term goal because the person has a lot more than me, but sometimes not. I just do it to keep it fun and try to give me something to work towards while the bigger goals like “retirement” are so far away.

Tom in Denver
Tom in Denver
10 years ago

I am squarely in the BORED phase. I paid off all CC debt, then paid off my car, then sold my house and now “rent” in my girlfriend’s house. Eventually, we’ll marry – ourselves and finances – but for now, watching my accounts go up a few hundred bucks here and there allows me to lose focus.

Instead, I celebrate milestones, like hitting $100K in my 401K, hitting 10K in my savings, etc.

Finding victories is key. I used to hang onto every word on some PF blogs. Now, they’re more of the same.

Michelle
Michelle
10 years ago

I love to give myself challenges to keep saving interesting. But I’m not sure how game #2 would work for savings. In order to bring home change for the piggy bank, you’d have to be breaking bills (i.e. spending) during the day. Counter-intuitive.

PB
PB
10 years ago

I made a chart in Excel for every debt, arranged in rainbow colors, debts on the side, months horizontally. Using the debt snowball method, I calculated when each one will be paid off. It’s fun to look at it every month and to move a month closer to everything being gone. We have a few vertical things marked, too, which help to focus the mind, like our last child’s graduation month and my husband’s retirement. And me going back to school! This helps with planning.

Michelle @ TransferAmerica
Michelle @ TransferAmerica
10 years ago

My husband and I both save our change from the end of each day. We have separate glass jars that we put our change in. I remember when I was younger I had a piggy bank for about 5 years that I put in whatever change I could find around the house. It would never be a lot at one time but it slowly added up. When it was finally full it weighed about 30lbs and I had saved over $600! Our jars of change are halfway full and we’re going to put it towards something fun. For myself, using… Read more »

Benjamin Warsinske
Benjamin Warsinske
10 years ago

Good post. A game to help you continue to pay down your debt and increase your assets is Cashflow 202. You can play it online or as a board game. It will teach you what to do after you pay down your short term debt, how to create more cashflow, and manage your finances all while playing a game. I have played it for about 3 years now- it is incredible how it makes it much easier to understand and implement into your real life. If you are bored and want to challenge yourself to paying your longer term debts… Read more »

elena
elena
10 years ago

I hear you. I keep GRS as my homepage looking for inspiration.
We paid off our debts and have an emergency fund. Retirement, keeping our house intact and saving for cars have been more elusive. I don’t see the immediate gain. I worry more about making the right/better choice.
It’s about practice and habits. Preparing for the next thing. Maybe getting lucky too.

Evan H.
Evan H.
10 years ago

We are currently saving for a down payment here in Ventura, CA. My wife and I took a piece of graph paper and drew a picture of a house on it that consumes 70 grid squares. Each square represents $1000 and the game is to fill up these squares by the end of next year. For each $10,000 we’ve scheduled a champagne dinner at some of the restaurants around town. We’re coming up on $20,000, so it will be fish tacos at Spencer Mackenzie’s with champage overlooking the beach. We’ve found that you have to celebrate your mini milestones along… Read more »

Nick
Nick
10 years ago

Great ideas!! sounds like now that you’ve conquered your small debts and budgeting you are ready to become your own banker! If you can conquer this you will never pay interest to anyone else for the rest of your life….pretty darn powerful!

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

Here’s how I motivated myself for the big debts–I got an amortization table (or you can make one yourself using Excel). I used this to make a graph showing how much would still be owed each month if I made minimum payments. Then, each time I made an extra payment, I added another dot showing the actual remaining principal. Now, when you still owe a lot as I did (my big loan was a mortgage), this is still not that exciting, so I also calculated how much time I was cutting off the end of my loan. (When I started,… Read more »

KT
KT
10 years ago

I think the visual reminders (ex. “We printed out little $100 bills representing all of our debt and taped them together in a long string.”) are a great daily reminder and also a great reward when you get to take them down. We have a “net worth” sign in the closet where we get ready in the morning. It is a great reminder especially on Mondays (we update it every Sunday night).

Samantha
Samantha
10 years ago

I agree completely with Karen #7. We’ve done the ‘getting out of debt’ race, we’ve saved the 6 months expenses just in case, and the retirement fund is on auto-pilot. Now we’re paying down the mortgage, but its such a long-term (and rather boring) goal that I’m having a hard time cutting coupons to save another $3. And making my own pie crust isn’t worth it anymore (simply because I don’t enjoy it).

I need to re-focus and make it a game! Thanks!

Patti
Patti
10 years ago

Me too! Once we hit our $50K emergency fund, my husband lost all steam for saving. Now with me going it alone, it’s a chore. We need some new projects to save for. Last year, I redid the kitchen and we saved for that. Next, I am thinking of saving to invest in our friend’s restaurant or maybe in a healthy food vending machine. Something to get us both motivated. One idea I had was to pick a new charity each month and see how much we could save for it. I decided monthly might be too much and maybe… Read more »

Trina
Trina
10 years ago

Good idea to think of ways to keep yourself motivated! IMHO, building up savings and retirement funds, and paying off the big loans can be fun, too. I think it helps to break it down into chunks. I tend to think in $10k increments. Just like you celebrated each time you retired a credit card, make sure you celebrate reaching savings goals, too. Good luck! 🙂

The Quest
The Quest
10 years ago

Whenever one decides to trade destructive behavior for a more beneficial way of living, there is always excitement at the change. I know that I personally felt elated at the thought of managing my finances in a completely different way. I thought about keeping old statements and bounced checks around for positive reinforcement but instead found them to be negative reminders. Can’t change the past after all! Just look at your savings balances to keep yourself on track 🙂 This is money that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
10 years ago

These are really great ideas! Making it a game or competition keeps you dedicated and determined to accomplish your goals. I think this will definitely help with saving money

Trina
Trina
10 years ago

I also agree with some PPs who suggested that you put it all on autopilot and forget about it. When you’re not thinking about it all the time, it’s amazing how quickly the debt can go away and the savings can grow.

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

I must be a boring person, because I still find it rewarding to come in under budget every month and watch my savings grow. It’s one of the benefits of tracking my spending. My “points” are really just dollars. This post reminds me of a video I watched about “the gameification of everything.” It’s about how Facebook games (like Farmville) are changing the future of advertising. The presenter predicts that advertisers will create point systems to reward people for using their brands and even watching their advertisements. It’s an interesting idea to use the same psychological tactics to create a… Read more »

Rob Ward
Rob Ward
10 years ago

I can totally relate with this. Our credit card debt has been paid off for about a year now and now we’re working on the “big stuff.” Car loan #1 is almost paid off! I think we do need some extra stuff to keep us motivated though.

Eric
Eric
10 years ago

Since paying off the plastic credit was easier (I assume the loans were smaller than student and car loans), why not use the plastic as a chipping tool? I noticed that some plastic transfer proposals. Some offer a low 0,99% transfer interest rate. Here’s the idea: Chip the big loan with small, achievable transfers, one at a time. Now, this is certainly not for anyone, and let’s be honest, probably only for those who unlocked the discipline-never-missed-a-payment in-year achievement. Do some budget math and evaluate how much you could transfer on a low TIR credit card. Maybe you can transfer… Read more »

Chris
Chris
10 years ago

It worries me that my goal and reward are so firmly based on rising account balances. Reading through the comments, everyone seems on-board with this notion. This surprises me, as I thought GRS (as a whole) had a grip on the saving/living balance. I’m considering quitting my job, but losing my high income for a likely lower income is stressing me out. For me, success is a rising savings/investment account and I know quitting is going to make those dollar amounts go down. But situations like this is exactly why I was saving! I think looking at account balances as… Read more »

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
10 years ago

An epic win for me would be to find a 0% balance transfer offer with a 0% APR for one year, and no balance transfer fee whatsoever.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

@35… Chris, you just have to figure out what your goals are and how you can achieve them. Obviously shrinking balances aren’t sustainable unless you’re close to death. We did a year on one salary and our account balances went down, but we had planned for exactly that and had cash on hand to cover it. But that would not have worked indefinitely. If you have a lower income, you have to live on less (including saving), but you should still be saving. Basically, spend less than you earn over the long-run, no matter what you earn. So if you… Read more »

Brad
Brad
10 years ago

Comment #1 by Wes has the right idea. Automate what you are currently doing and start earning more. That’s what I have done. If its boring and repeatable it can be automated. Every single one of our bills are paid automatically. Trash, water, sewer, cell phone, both cars, insurance, retirement, emergency fund, 529, ect. I dont have to think about it. I automated everything before my credit cards were paid off. Once they were automatically paid off I just tweaked the payment amounts to other things. I only have to make adjustments every few months and I still check statements… Read more »

J.R.C.
J.R.C.
10 years ago

I just bought epic win because of this post. I’m already doing my chores! Thanks for letting me know this app exists!

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

I’m with you Sierra, it is harder for me to feel the “wins” now that all our debt (except mortgage) is gone. I think it has a lot to do with seeing a definitive end to the goal when you have debt. )The M in SMART goal setting – measurable.) Saving is not as measurable (for me at least) when you’re just dumping it into savings account each month or transferring it to a Roth IRA. I think that is because it is so automated (and ingrained) for me now. Maybe I need to just step back each month and… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
10 years ago

@ Sierra RE: EPIC WIN Sounds like a lot of fun! I’ve never liked “quest” type video games because they seem to me a lot like a job with no salary. Now this makes work a game– but the results are real, not just virtual. Anyway, I don’t think that you need to look for a computer game that does this. Rather, look for an IPHONE EMULATOR that you can use to run your app. I haven’t had a chance to find one yet, but there are plenty out there. Just google “iphone emulator” or “iphone simulator” and you’ll find… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
10 years ago

update: sorry, after doing some research, i found this: the iphone emulator/simulator only works if you have the original source code, before it gets compiled for the iphone’s ARM processor. so i won’t run on a regular mac or pc (unless you’re writing your own apps).

however, no need for an iphone to get epic win– the ipod touch runs the same software at a lower price and without service contracts, data charges, etc., etc..

shares