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  1. Jacob, have you seen any noteworthy examples of apps that gamify the personal finance experience?

    I’m assuming those developers were doing something to earn their keep ;)

    This might make for a topical discussion at the moment (now that the proliferation of smart phones both ‘i’ and Android is gathering speed).

    • Hey Luke,

      Since you asked, I’m actually working on a project called “The Frugality Game”. We teach principles from Get Rich Slowly like tracking your spending and the envelope system, and we provide tools to manage your real-life finances, but it’s all presented in the context of a game.

      Each step of learning is exploring a different location in the world, and you can earn tokens and badges for keeping up with your budget.

      It’s online now at The Frugality Game dot com.

      We still have a ways to go before it’s perfect (and we’re working on some other projects as well), but it’s exciting to see the principles of gamification applied to personal finance.

      I know I do *much* better at sticking with a plan when think of it as a game.

  2. I definitely viewed paying off my debt as a game. Now that I’m debt-free, I’m using net worth as motivation.

  3. I have never thought about personal finance in this respect, but I believe JD, that you are in the game now of an RPG. You have already beat the game (ie. you have paid off your debts, and earn more money than you spend) but now you are able to go back through the levels and play them again as a master. You now have the tools and skills to glide through the levels and pick up all of the pieces of information and value that you missed the first time through. You can now connect with other people who have mastered the game as well and can join together with them to teach other “newbies” how to beat the game.

    You are in an enviable position, and one that I hope to be in one day soon!

  4. I can definitely relate to this. That’s a big part of what makes building a business so much fun for me–there are plenty of ways to keep score (traffic, revenue, subscribers, etc.).

    Also, have fun at Gencon! :)

  5. When we were working to pay off our mortgage, we played our own game, how low can you go. Making a game out of trying to get the household budget lower every month helped keep us focused on our goal and not on what we were giving up.

  6. People who scout out the best credit card rates and move balances around to decrease their interest and get the maximum points are playing a game. I even know one person who maximized his credit score by figuring out when his American Express charge card would report to the credit bureaus and would make his payment right before.

    The problem is when people who get pleasure from financial gaming advise others to do it because it’s a great practice. Not all of us are cut out to “game” the 0% balance transfer. And some folks who play games they’re not equipped to play lose when interest rates shoot up or they don’t understand all the terms.

    One of the reasons I’ve never carried personal debt is because I hate the complications of it.

    A great follow up post might be one where you talk about different money decisions based on the types of games people like to play.

    My financial life is very dull. I do simple things that don’t require a lot of thought. And while I’ll occasionally compete against myself to save the greatest percentage on groceries using coupons, timing sales, and bonus cards, I generally prefer to play games on the lake instead of at the bill paying desk. :)

  7. I really believe that this is why I enjoy doing the household finances…because it’s a ‘win’ every time the savings balance increases and the debt decreases. Thanks for the great post!

  8. The game I play is that I take my monthly budget amount and divide it by the number of days in the month. I make a chart out of that which is just a straight line going from bottom left to top right. Then I fill in my purchases from Mint every day and that is a second line on the chart. As long as my second line is lower than my first line I am staying within my budget.

    • Mint has a similar feature to this if you use their built-in budgeting feature. Each budget has a horizontal bar which fills up (left to right) according to how much money you spend on that particular budget ($0 spent, bar empty, etc.) . There is also a line located on the bar which represents approximately where you should be at with the budget according to what day of the month it is–similar to your system. For instance, if it were the 15th, the line would be located in the middle of the bar–regardless of whether you’ve spent half the money in your budget. If you use Mint for multiple budgets or even all of your budgeting, they do have a seperate bar which shows all of your budgets combined and even has the line-tracker, which is very similar to the system you use. The advantage here is Mint tracks all of your spending automatically, though the advantage with your system seems to be an ever-present awareness of where you are at in your budget when you make your graph. NNTR

  9. THis post really resonates with me – The reason I enjoy handling our family’s finances is that I do feel it’s like a game.

    I remember back when we had credit card debt, I’d enjoy transferring the debt from one zero balance card to another (in the days before balance transfer transaction fees).

    Once we paid off our debt and funded our EF, I became bored and we began to spend without thought. Now that I’ve got smaller targeted savings accounts, I’ve got a game again where I can watch the accont balances go up. I set little mini goals in each account where I feel like we go to the next level.

  10. I definitely find managing my finances to be a game. It’s fun for me to figure out the tricks and methods that grow my money the fastest or avoid pitfalls. In my mind I’m winning at personal finance most days. Keeps me motivated.

  11. I’ve definitely thought of money management (and weight loss, and a variety of other things…) this way. Of course, I’m also a gamer :)

    Interestingly, I’ve also had instances where I’ve found the fun part of games to be money management. There was an online game I played a few years ago, where you could set up in-game ‘shops’ to sell the items you had acquired (for the in-game currency), and after awhile I was having more fun with that, trying to manipulate the economy and figure out how I could get more ‘money’.

    I don’t know if you’re interested at all in the upcoming Diablo 3 game, but one announcement they made recently was that they’re going have an way in-game for people to trade items they find for real money with other players. I’m intrigued, because I was going to play the game anyway, but now this may add some meta-game for me…not only will I be playing the game, but I’ll possibly also get to make some money doing so.

  12. There’s a great iPhone/iPod app called “Epic Win” that turns to-do lists into an RPG. You get experience points in different character categories (social, spirit, strength, intellect, etc.) for completing different tasks, and the more tasks you complete, the farther your character goes on its journey, the higher you level up, the more magical objects you collect, etc. It is WAY more fun than it should be. It even has dramatic sound effects.

  13. When we were students it used to be fun to save up a couple of hundred to do something special like a special dinner or some extra money for a couple of vacation days. However as me and my wife got better att the finances and also got higher incomes and were automatically saving about 30% of our income the little stuff became less interesting…so last year we started a game called ‘extra vacation money’ the whole idea was that anything we saved from our regular budgets (food, clothing, allowance etc even coins) we put in a special vacation account. At first it seemed small to save a couple of $ here and there but after about a year our ‘extra vacation money’ took us on a 10 day trip to a small island outside the west coast of mexico!!! I consider my self a winner in this game:-)

  14. I’m not a gamer, but I still relate to this article. For example, when I was paying off debt, I made a game out of how many “snowflakes” I could create every month, by selling little things online, driving less and paying what I saved in gas to my debts, etc. Now that my debt is paid off, I use similar strategies to see how quickly I can fund different goals, especially my vacation fund. It helps me redirect my spending… do I want to buy this sparkly widget before me, or put that money into my vacation fund? It makes it fun to save.

    This works with healthy lifestyle strategies, too. I hesitate to use the word “diet” because I’m not trying to lose weight, but I have to stay focused to eat healthy and exercise regularly. One of my recent “games” was to help me get into the habit of eating a green salad every day. I made a scorecard for one month, and checked off each day I ate a salad. At the end of the month, if I ate at least 6 salads a week all month, I would spend $50 however I want… about $2 a salad. It worked, and I bought myself some cute pajamas and makeup as a reward, and now I’m in the habit of eating a salad every day!

    Great article, thanks JD.

  15. I love this concept!

    I definitley play my finances like a game. I use mint.com to track goals and race to accomplish them. If it hadn’t been for me setting time goals for certain things, I’d probably still be paying my student loans off at the minimum, thinking that the extra couple hundred dollars I had would be better off put to investments… unfortunately, without goals that couple hundred dollars usually goes to a shopping trip or two.

    Using the mint goal tracker, I’ve set it so that I can visually see how far along I am at paying off my loans, saving for a house, saving for the christmas season, etc.

    So I guess that in answer to your question, time is the measure I use for tracking my PF “game”

  16. While I don’t like to play most games, I do think of frugality as a game. It’s a challenge to get what I want for as little as possible. Or better yet to repurpose something I already have. I don’t reward myself. The reward is succeeding at the frugality game.

  17. I’ve been addicted to Settlers of Catan for the last year or so. While playing the other day I realized that the same principals apply as far as having multiple sources of income and succeeding in the game (and in building your own wealth).

    During the setup phase (or while building out) it can be beneficial to make sure you have settlements touching resources with many different numbers (which represent the dice rolls needed to collect resources (income) from that source). Even though it may seem better to have put all your settlements on high % numbers (ex: 6 and 8) even it if means doubling up, sometimes the diversity of having say 6 different numbers instead of just 3 high % but duplicated numbers can help you win the game, especially if the probability gods don’t cooperate on the dice rolls for that particular game and 6 and 8 don’t hit as often as they ‘should’.

    Anyway, it helped me see that maybe in life it would be better to have multiple sources of income rather than have all your eggs in one basket (a job).

    • I just don’t trust an employer to have your best interests in mind. The ability to say, enough is enough helps though. My boss treats me better because I can and do say, enough. If I needed the job I would be afraid to say it though. I like have multiple streams of income, it makes me feel safe.

  18. I don’t like playing board games, because frankly I am a sore loser. But what I do enjoy playing are online Zynga games on Facebook like Farmville. They rely on a system of micro rewards to keep you interested in playing. This is one of the reasons they are so addictive. Winning challenges or leveling up keeps you coming back for more. I could see how this principle could be effectively used in personal finance. If you could set up small rewards for yourself, perhaps that would keep you economizing. For example, say you manage to save “X” amount of money, you get to go out to dinner (or whatever your budget allows). Of course, if you do this too much you won’t end up saving money at all, but I imagine there are many ways you could use micro-rewards to motivate more saving.

    • I think micro-rewards are the best way to improve personal finance motivation (and gamification in general).

      One of the biggest problems with gamification is that real life is *slow* compared to games. Games work by giving us feedback and experiences quicker and easier than we could get them in real life.

      I’m working on hopefully applying your ideas to a future app from The Frugality Game.

  19. I love using Mint.com as a way to keep track of my spending and progress towards goals. Particularly because of the charts.

    I HATE when I exceed my budget on something and the bar turns red. It’s like I just failed the objective for the game.

    But, the great thing about budgets is that I can set them myself, much like levels in a game. If I am not winning on level “EXTREMELY, RIDICULOUSLY DIFFICULT”, then I can adjust my budget to be able to win on “Difficult”, “Medium Hard” or “Easy”… all of which have their own personal connotations. (I feel much more bad ass if I am winning on “EXTREMELY, RIDICULOUSLY DIFFICULT”, but sometimes we should take baby steps I suppose.)

  20. When I paid extra on the mortgage, it was fun to compare how much I owed to how much I would have owed if I had never pre-paid on the mortgage. It was also fun to watch the date of the last payment change.

    Another game is the cross-over game from Your Money or Your Life. You graph your expenditures each month (and it’s fun to watch them go down) and your investment earnings (ideally, these are going up). When the two lines cross, you’re financially independent (or at least that month you could have paid all your expenditures with your earnings—you might want to look at moving averages as well).

    Challenge yourself to complete a certain number of missions each year. For example:
    * Comparison shop on insurance
    * Try to negotiate some monthly bill
    * Figure out the best place to leave your “safe” money—answers in my lifetime have included savings accounts, CDs, high-yield online savings accounts and I-bonds.
    * Find a cheaper way to satisfy one of your continuing needs (such as graham crackers for work dessert instead of half of a whole-grain toaster pastry, which in turn was better than a protein bar).
    * Find something you already have instead of getting something new.
    * Fix or mend something you would normally replace.

  21. Every time I cash in my credit card rewards to get free stuff, even though I’ve never paid a red cent of interest, I am completely overcome with the feeling that I ‘ve “beat” the CC company. Heh. Its my smug little victory.

  22. That’s great – if making saving money into a game gives you motivation, then you’ve found a winning idea. If more people found a way to do that with paying off debt…

  23. JD wrote:

    >I’m not sure what sort of game I’m playing >now. It’s as if I’ve reached the final stages >of the game, and my goal is simply to maintain >the position I’ve established. And I’m trying >to find a way to do this while still having >fun.

    Just because you are doing well financially doesn’t mean you are done with all the accomplishments. It seems like it is time for you to set some new goals. You could always try to increase income, but what about trying to reach more people…. I bet it would be possible, but challenging to double your site’s traffic.

    -Rick Francis

  24. Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas can actually teach you a lot about making a budget and evaluating return on investment.

  25. I’ve never thought of PF as a game. However, thinking back to when we were paying off credit cards it was an exciting “win” for me each time we paid one off.

    Now, things are pretty boring.

    I do feel like I win if I have a coupon. But at the same time I feel the same let down of losing (I’m a poor loser at real games too!) if I find a coupon the day after I could have used it. LOL

    I think I’ll be more excited now because I just got a job! I helped a friend get a bookkeeping job a few years ago. Now he’s moving and offered it to me. The owner took me up on my offer for $3 more per hour than my friend was making. ;)

    I’m using the money solely for saving to build an addition of an apartment on our home. I’m hoping I can have the money in 3 years. It might end up being 4 because I’ll probably want to buy a new car with cash at that time as well.

    I liked the above comment about Settlers of Catan and various income sources. I’m hoping that having a rental apartment will be good for us now but maybe even when we’re retired.

    The bad thing is I’m going to want to spend part of the money I earn. I am pretty much guaranteed to take $150 out a month for increased gas expense, work clothes and maybe eating out another time a week because I’ll be more tired. But this will be a game for me. How much less can you spend to not have to work!!!

  26. As a lifelong gamer, which I eventually turned into a career as an RPG video game designer, I have to admit there is a certain satisfaction to managing my finances, whether it’s trimming my food bill by 30% one month or snagging an excellent game from Steam for only $5.

    I suppose in the real world the Big Bad is the bank which holds my mortgage, but I do have plans to get them off my back well before they expect me to, and that will be a sweet, sweet victory.

  27. This has more to do with groceries… But my sister taught me this one: How many points can you use up out of the fridge?

    So you go into the fridge and/or pantry and try to use up as much stuff as you can in one meal. Each item is worth 1 point. So if I use up a jar of olives, the rest of the carrots, a box of pasta, and a half eaten block of cheese in 1 meal, then it’s worth 4 points. It’s weird but it works in my head to make me use up my food before it goes bad.

  28. Yes! I play it against the other members listed on NetworthIQ. Not that they know that, haha. I love to see myself move up on the various lists — by state, by profession. It’s something I think about when I think about increasing my net worth — if it will move me up on the lists. I feel less ridiculous knowing I’m not the only one who makes an imaginary game of personal finance.

  29. I really like this post.

    In speaking with people about Thrift and how it can help them improve their lives, I hear comments about how difficult it is. People seem to think life will be serious and unhappy because they can’t spend money on anything they want.

    They are totally wrong. Thrift can be challenging but it can also be fun. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I study a little and find the best possible product for the least amount of cash. I feel much more relaxed when I pay for four new tires out of the emergency fund rather than whipping out a credit card.

    I think we should emphasize, to our friends and family, that there are financially sound strategies that can lead to a much happier life.

  30. As a lover of games of all kinds myself, I really enjoyed this article. I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older I don’t seem to be into video games as much as I used to (but I enjoy the social aspect of board games when I get the opportunity). I now wonder if part of that is my gaming “need” is somewhat satisfied by the careful and detailed budget I now keep up almost daily? I enjoy trying to manipulate the numbers so I have more in the end, which is the same basic concept as many games.

    Perhaps I’ll have to try and see how I can make it into even more of a “game” for myself if I directly think about it that way.

    Also J.D., you’re going to Gen-con? I live just south of Indianapolis but hadn’t heard much yet about it coming up. I may just take a drive up there this weekend and see what it’s like (I’ve yet to attend one). Perhaps I’ll see you there!

  31. I don’t know if I keep score in the normal sense! I look at my portfolio to increase every year similar to my net worth. Personal finance and just about everything else is a game to me. At least I turn it into a game. It could be something as simple as getting the best price on something. For me, it is the competition that makes it a game. I am competing against the retail establishment or something else to get the best price.

  32. Thinking about personal finance as a game hasn’t been helpful for me, because I end up feeling hunted and exhausted by the constant effort to save MORE. I’m not terribly motivated by the idea of “winning” the “game.” Right now, what works is just setting up a system I can follow without thinking too much about it– a system that sends a bunch of money into savings, has my bills saved for a month or two in advance, etc. I still check my accounts almost every day just to track and make sure I don’t get overcharged for anything, but that’s more to reassure me and to satisfy my obsessive tendencies.

  33. I think it was Don Lancaster who wrote that “The most exciting, most challenging, and the deadliest adventure games of all are played on spreadsheets.”

  34. Who doesn’t love to play Monopoly? It makes perfect sense to make a game out of managing your money. People are far more prone to stick with something fun and enjoyable than they are the mundane.

    It jives perfectly with the attitude one must have to get out of debt once and for all. You have to get excited about it and focus on the benefits and positives of it.

  35. I set myself all sorts of little minichallenges – “No paying any finance or ATM fees this year”, stuff like that.

    We used to do Chore Wars among my friends – I wonder if I should start that back up and put a personal finance area in. “Put money in the bank” “Lower a utility bill or credit card rate”, stuff like that.

  36. I definitely feel I “won” today when I convinced groupon to credit me for a groupon I didn’t use from 2010! Any time I decide to ask for something like a refund, I feel I have gained something akin to life points.

    And, I have a game this summer– if I spend more at the farmers market then I do at the grocery store then I win! The goal is to eat fresh, buy less crap and support local farmers. In that game, everyone wins!

  37. I’ve spent a lot of my life playing videogames, so this really resonates with me. I’ve tried to look at finances from a gaming perspective, and sometimes it works, but the majority of the time, it really is more out of necessity. Maybe as I get closer to seeing progress in my quest to get out of debt, I’ll be able to see some of the more fun aspects of it.

  38. I’ve lately been thinking of my finances as a competition against myself, and luckily I’m winning. Every payday when my paycheck is directly deposited into my account, I take whatever was left over from the last month to savings, effectively starting fresh every month. I then try to see how much I can have left over at next payday, and if I can, increase the amount of savings each time. I’ve been at this for 3 months, and put away $185, then $290, and last month $400. Once I have $1000 in savings (next level!) then I’ll tackle the credit card debt (another level!) and then retirement accounts and house savings. Imagine my experience points I’m racking up too.
    I’ve also been having mini-contests with my electricity bill. When my electricity bill dropped from $20/month to $14 and then $13, there was a mild celebration.

  39. This is a great post. “Gaming” has helped me stay focused on many tasks, including personal finance. Nowadays, I use the ‘paper trading’ systems from my broker to practice stock/option trading and see how well my ideas will actually work.

    This is a good way to work with kids too. I used to teach economics and finance classes to middle schoolers and games were the rule of the day.

  40. My husband views refinancing as a game. He just heard that the next door neighbor just got a 3% rate for 5 years, so he is starting that up again. I think he refinances one house or the other every six months. I don’t know how to do video games, I am a little older, but the whole purpose of making money IS a game. You try to get more stuff for less money. You try to do more for less. Years ago, when I was trying to save money for a house, I would try to make dinner for a dollar. That was really years ago. Someone should invent a game that shows that college is not worth the $120,000 outlay unless you are in the sciences. We waste money on that without a thought.

  41. As a lover of games I really enjoyed this article. I believe that this is why I enjoy doing the household finances as it is a ‘win’ every time the savings balance increases. a great post to read!

  42. Great post – I don’t tend to make a gam out of our financed. However, I do have to admit that I get a pretty big thrill out of personal victories of getting ‘something for nothing’. For example – I cleaned out the fridge and used every last vegetable I bought instead of going to the store – YEA!, I figured out how to fix the blind turner by locating the glue and (gasp!) gluing it back together saving a trip to the store for a replacement – YEA!. I washed both dogs, cleaned their ears and trimmed their nails, saving me a $50 trip to the groomer – YEA! Every time I can get something done on my to do list for free – or minimal cost (less than a quarter of retail) – I feel like a rock star.

  43. In many instances, as a game progresses it also changes. It becomes more challenging. You are presented with new obstacles to overcome and you may have to improve/alter your strategy to move forward.

    One “game goal” in personal finance might be to minimze the amount of interest paid on existing debt because interest on debt is basically “dead money”. Obviously the goal of the game is to become debt free. Therefore, with existing debt, if you can minimize the amount of interest paid, you can free up some money to accelerate paying down the principle.

  44. I can definitely relate to this topic since that’s what we’ve tried recently – to turn our loan repayment into a game. We figured, that if we kept making our regular payment on one of our student loans, it’d take us 11 months to pay it off. So we set up a “kill this loan” game. 1 point was awarded for each $1 of regular payment. 2 points – for each $1 of an extra payment if it came from making extra money through side gigs. Half a point was awarded for each $1 extra payment if it came through cutting down on some expense or selling some of our stuff we no longer use. We had 3 levels of the game and small, but nice rewards for moving up each level. We actually ended up paying the loan in just 4 months. Now we’re working on our next loan (we have lots of them, unfortunately).

  45. While we have been getting out of credit card debt, I have been educating my other half about easy ways to get the best deal. He is a video gamer and loves the Unit Price game at the grocery store so much that not only is he upset if I go shopping w/o him, but he has also taught it to some of his other guy friends so they can save money, too.

    He also uses “reverse credit” asking for Gamestop cards for his bday and Xmas gifts. He saves them up and then “buys” a few games with the cards. Then he turns them in to the company I work for, http://www.abundatrade.com instead of back to the retail store and he gets cash back for the used games. (We also accept used CDs, DVDs and books for cash, too.) He then combines that cash with the next set of bday and Xmas gift cards to buy more games. His video game habit no longer cuts into our pay- off-our-debt funds. Win, win!

  46. Many people here mentioned RPG’s. Bioshock, a personal favorite of mine, had a particular system of economics in which a special substance could be used to purchase powerups.

    If a player waited, powerups would cost less if purchased at a later time (i.e. the next level), or a player could get better, but more expensive powerups if they saved their “money” and waited to buy it from a “vending machine” in a later level, as opposed to blowing all their “money” on every single powerup featured at the “vending machine” in their current level–whether it was truly useful or not.

    I noticed while playing that if I would wait to spend at the right time, I would get the most value.

    P.S. For people that actually played the game, this meant I didn’t buy the tonics in the Gatherer’s Garden, but I would save my Adam so I could buy better plasmids and Eve/Health upgrades at every Garden.

  47. I love how a game can make something boring like money management, or building a house, or even something as simple as walking from room to room, FUN! (the room to room thing was a reference to Sims. The popularity of that game still baffles me to be honest.) Anyway, I just wanted to share another money game with you, since you seem to be such a gamer. This one is about the national economy, though. I work for Mango Money’s blog and we recently shared this one. People LOVED it. Check it out, gamers! http://www.mangomoney.com/blog/blog/become-a-budget-hero

  48. Good article. I love articles that combine two different aspects of Life to find similarities. Game are a natural part of life. Life is a game is you choose it to be so. Good article. I power up every time I get paid and power down every time i have to spend money. Lets all have a lot of energy.

  49. This is a fantastic idea. I think it takes “the change jar” to a whole new level. We always put our change in the jar and hope we’ll have some money for a rainy day, or for the holidays. But making a game out of seeing how much we can get in there over a specific period of time might be even more rewarding (and beneficial).

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