How To Turn Money Management Into A Game

How To Turn Money Management Into A Game

Personal finance blogger J.D. Roth explains how his love of games has translated into an effective motivator for better money management: I am a gamer. All my life, I’ve been a fan of games of all sorts. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons since I was in the third grade.

When we were younger, my wife and I had marathon bridge sessions with another couple every week. I used to host monthly game nights during which my friends and I played the latest and greatest European board games. For a while, I played in chess tournaments. And, of course, I’ve long been addicted to video games.

Photo remixed from an original by Korionov/Shutterstock.

No surprise then than I was happy to participate in a recent panel discussion at the IGDA summit, a conference for game developers. The topic? Practical personal finance. The other members of this panel were Courtney Stanton (of Subatomic Studios) and Mike Sellers (of Kabam). The panel was moderated by Dan Scherlis.

I didn’t know the other panel members before the conference started. Because we’d never met, we spent a couple of hours beforehand preparing our talking points. I was impressed by how my colleagues tied everything back to gaming. Over and over again, they talked about the “gamification of personal finance”.

The Gamification of Personal Finance

The “gamification of personal finance” simply means using money management techniques based on game design principles.

Think of your favourite games — especially video games. What makes them fun? What makes you want to play again and again? How can these elements be extracted from game design and used in real life? In this case, for promoting smart personal finance?

At first, I thought the idea sounded silly. But I quickly realised that I’ve subconsciously been using game design principles to help me cut spending, boost income, get out of debt, and build wealth. My own approach to money management has been game-based for the past seven years, but I hadn’t realised it until now.

During our discussion, Stanton talked about her own experience with debt repayment, about how it felt like she would “level up” whenever she paid off a credit card or a loan. This kept her motivated to continue.

Dan Scherlis, our moderator, made an interesting point. Even as you’re trying to “win” the game of personal finance, there are folks on the other side trying to beat you. The credit card companies, the transnational corporations, and even the professionals who are supposed to be on your side — they’re all trying to game you, trying to get as much money out of you as they can. (This is exactly why I’m always saying that nobody cares more about your money than you do.)

Playing the game

But how does this all relate to Real Life? For me, the answer is obvious. I can see clearly how using the debt snowball gave me game-like feedback about my progress, encouraging me to accelerate my debt reduction. I felt like I was winning.

The same is true with boosting my income. For years, it was a fun challenge to see if I could earn more money this month than last month. (Or more money this quarter than last quarter.) For me, my income was my “score”, and bringing in more money was my way of racking up the points.

Now that my financial situation is rosy, the game is a little less obvious. In some ways, it’s as if I’ve reached the final stages, 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. (Actually, for you Diablo II fans, it’s almost like I’ve finished the main game and am playing the Secret Cow Level.)

For you, making a game out of money management might mean something else. For instance, you might:

  • Budget $100 for groceries every week. If you spend just $85, then the remaining $15 is yours to spend on whatever you’d like.
  • Make a game out of spending as little as possible on dining out. How far can you stretch your restaurant dollar? What coupons and discounts can you find? Where are the cheap eats that taste good?
  • Make a paper chain representing your debt. Each time you pay off a certain amount ($100?), cut a link of the chain.
  • Give yourself a “bonus” for completing a “stage”. Maybe you’re trying to pay off debt. Each time you eliminate one debt, you might give yourself some sort of small reward as a “power-up”.

Actually, a lot of the “money hacks” I’ve shared during five years of writing Get Rich Slowly are nothing more than methods for making money management into a game. Some examples:

To some extent, Mint uses game-design principles. It’s a money-management tool that provides game-like feedback about your progress. And tools like Bobber (a targeted-savings app) explicitly try to make money management a game.

Note: In some ways, “gamification” is just taking advantage of feedback loops. With personal finance, that means getting constant data about your financial situation, looking for ways to improve that situation, and then pushing yourself to make changes. Once the changes are made, you look at the results and repeat the process.

Game over

The “gamificiation” of personal finance isn’t new. For decades, people have been trying to use game principles to encourage others to save. In 1988, when I was 19, my father game me some financial advice. He wrote:

You used to play lots of video games. One of them had a rocket and you had an energy level you had to worry about. Energy was used to travel and to shoot at the enemy. Life is a big video game. In our society money is the energy. There are certain things you have to or should do so make sure don’t shoot so many asteroids just for the fun of it that you deplete your energy level and someone has to flash on your screen — GAME OVER — .

Dad was decades ahead of his time!

Do you think of money management as a game? What rules do you set for yourself? How do you keep score? (Money in the bank seems like an obvious way to keep score, but some people might use net worth, and others might use investment returns, etc) I’d love to hear how other people make a game out of personal finance in the comments.

J.D. Roth is an accidental personal finance expert. For over five years, he’s been writing about smart money management at Get Rich Slowly. He’s the author of Your Money: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly Media, 2010), the personal finance columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, and a regular contributor to Time’s Moneyland blog. Really, though, he just wants to write about travel.


  • I played 2 finance games a few years back, Cashflow 101 and its sequel Cashflow 202, both turn-based games with cartoony graphics.

    They present you with a personal financial balance/score sheet and by making investments in property and other assets month to month, you try to fulfil the goal of increasing your passive income whilst dodging things like losing your job, buying an unnecessary doodad/gadget, etc.

    They’re from the controversial Kiyosaki brand, and the numbers aren’t realistic, but it does teach some very good principles, most importantly ROI. Highly recommended!

  • I’ll declare my bias up front. I work for a company called MediaSpark that publishes educational games that teach business and money management. A few years back we created two games that address the issues above: Financial Literacy and Personal Finance.

    In Personal Finance for example, you set lifestyle goals, get a job, house, car, family, credit cards, etc. You can model your life for up to 50 years to see where your decisions will lead you.

    Financial literacy is becoming more and more of an issue for people starting out in life because there are lots of companies eager to provide credit. It’s really easy to dig yourself a hole, but hard to crawl out if you get in too deep. And we’ve seen lots of evidence of that lately for sure, with both personal and corporate debt levels.

    Check out to learn more.

  • We’re all for gamification, you’re right on!! VW’s The Fun Theory is similar to this, just saying that you CAN change behavior for the better by making something previously drab exciting. We just did a recent blogpost about it called ImpulseSave And The Cookie-Laser where we featured VW’s piano-stairs. Also cool to hear about your personalized coupon budget – great idea!

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