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, 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…

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