How to gamify budgeting?
February 5, 2016 6:13 AM   Subscribe

We've finally decided that we need to spend less money. Yay! How can we make this more fun?

We've finally faced up to the fact that we're living above our means. We're not that bad off -- no debt, good savings -- but our spending has shot through the roof lately with lifestyle inflation and it frightens us a bit. Also, it feels out of line with our goals/philosophy of life.

We're not scared of budgeting -- we've been successful in the past -- but it often seems like such a drag. Is there any way my husband and I could make this into a game? For example, we have friends who are scrupulous about putting pennies in a jar and when they add up they go out to a specific restaurant for dinner. Ok, maybe not a great example, but that's the kind of fun stuff I mean. We have kids, if that matters, but not ones that are old enough to spend for themselves.

So, in short, any thoughts on making cutting back more fun?
posted by EtTuHealy to Work & Money (16 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent question and I am really looking forward to reading more answers!

The envelope method of budgeting has a certain element of gameyness.

I have also just read about a couple of apps which are supposed to gamify budgeting: SaveUp and SmartyPig.
posted by iamsuper at 6:25 AM on February 5, 2016

Our savings account is named "Hoard" online, which adds a certain pleasure to seeing it grow, and a certain reticence to transferring funds out of it.
posted by teremala at 6:40 AM on February 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

There are a few personal finance blogs that propose a monthly challenge. LifeHacker has one and January's was not eating out at restaurants; this month's is negotiating lower bills. It's nice having a goal with some external validation that it will make an appreciative difference to your savings, doing it for a manageable timeframe in order to experiment, and in a setting where you can learn from other people via comments.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:42 AM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

My ex, when we were sitting down making guidelines, the term budget was forbidden, said if we were naked this would be a lot more fun.
posted by AugustWest at 6:43 AM on February 5, 2016

How long can you go without visiting the grocery store? (Forces you to be creative and use your pantry / freezer stores.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:53 AM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a very conscientious budgeter. I enjoy the act itself, so YMMV, but here's what I do.

Firstly, I do all my math in YNAB4 AKA "YNAB Classic", which itself has a pretty cute and easy-to-use interface that I find makes budgeting a little more "fun". You could also do this with just a spreadsheet but the graphics and ease of use makes a big difference to me.

Anyway, in my budget I've got a category called "The Next Big Thing," which I tie in to other non-budget-related goals. Here's an example of how I use it:

I want new boots. I desperately want a nice pair of $x00 boots. Technically I could afford them, but they're definitely an irresponsible purchase for me right now.

I am also trying to lose weight. So I've taken the amount of weight I want to lose and given each pound a dollar value. At the end of each month, I weigh in. And for each pound I've lost since the last month, I throw $x into The Next Big Thing fund.

I calculated the cost of the boots and divided by about how much weight I want to lose, with a bit of wiggle room on each, to determine the price-per-pound. Once I have enough money for the boots, I'll find another Next Big Thing and another wellness goal.

So make "saving" your default state. But if there is a large purchase you want, make a challenge out of it. It's a compromise between snapping it up immediately and just never having it, with the added bonus of spurring you to complete other personal goals.

Any wellness goal will do. You could also reward yourself for spending time on any other kind of self-improvement - practicing a skill, cleaning extra, reading more, that kind of thing. Set a goal, and give progress towards that goal a dollar value. You could switch it up month to month even - maybe in January for each hour spent cleaning you get a few dollars in that category, but in February you could to reward yourself for treadmill time.

Admittedly, in the end the dollar value is the same - I'll still be spending $x00 on boots that could have gone into savings. But limiting the number of extraneous wants I have at once really helps. If I had picked them up immediately I would have just found another Next Big Thing to pine over, and then who's to say I wouldn't just snap that up right away too?
posted by one of these days at 6:58 AM on February 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

Challenges are good to make reaching goals fun, but it sounds like you have a pretty good handle on things (no debt, savings). You are doing way Way better than 90% of the rest of us.

Maybe instead of a big project like an all encompassing budget, come up with an easyforyou way to make your spending more visible. Kinda like how calorie trackers work to make us aware of the food we are gobbling down. This might be as simple as a Spending Book -- which is literally just a notebook into which you scribble down what you spend using rudimentary categories -- or one of the online tools like Mint. Once you see the spending facts, you can gamify it with challenges, or just make the spending changes you need to.

Not exactly fun, but not so much friction that you stop after the initial rush, either.
posted by notyou at 7:03 AM on February 5, 2016

So, I've been reading and writing about personal finance for a decade. Many Mefites read my stuff. And while I think gamifying your finances is a great idea (I've written about it in the past), I'd suggest you try a slightly different approach.

Usually when spending gets out of control it's because the spender lacks focus and direction. I believe strongly that the first place most people should start -- and this includes you, from the sound of it -- is deciding what your purpose is. What's your why? What do you want from life?

I know this sounds like New Age crap, but stay with me. This is important.

If you can figure out your personal mission (or your mission as a couple), it's much easier to say "no" to things that might otherwise be tempting. If your mission is travel, say, then you know that the money you're earning ought to be saved for that European vacation and not spent on a $200 bar bill at that fancy new restaurant. Or if your goal is to buy a new home in Nebraska, it's easier to say "no" when your friends want you to go on a ski trip.

When you have definite goals and purpose (financial and otherwise), you can build your life around these goals and it won't seem like you're sacrificing anything. If you don't have a clear direction, then it's easy to spend willy-nilly on every shiny object that comes along.

Actually, I guess this does tie into gamification, doesn't it? I mean, when you're playing a game, you want to win. And winning has very clear conditions. The conditions vary from game to game, of course, just as financial goals vary from person to person. You and your husband need to decide what it means to "win" with money. Until you do, gamifying the rest of your budget isn't going to help.

(I'd also suggest automating good behavior while building barriers to bad.)
posted by jdroth at 8:07 AM on February 5, 2016 [20 favorites]

How long can you go without visiting the grocery store?

Likewise, What can I make/do with this? for upcycling all kinds of waste.
posted by eclectist at 9:19 AM on February 5, 2016

I found using cash for all discretionary spending made it all seem more visible. I gave myself a weekly cash limit and when it was gone, it was gone. Nope, can't go out for drinks, I bought new boots. I also found that it helped that I got a little anxious about running out of cash for those last minute invites, so I started carrying over money, just in case.
posted by advicepig at 9:51 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

You each get a certain amount of money for the week (outside of communal purchases). At the end of the week whoever has the most left over gets the other's leftover amount as well (to put into savings). Whoever has the most saved at the end of the month/year gets to make X financial decision (put savings into stocks/bonds, start a business, put it all into 401k, etc)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:53 AM on February 5, 2016

Most of my discretionary spending focuses on "consumables" like books and video games, so I tied my consumption and purchasing together into one "game" -- finish X games, get a "credit" to buy a new one. Not only did it slow my spending down to a manageable pace, but it also got me focused on my backlogs and made me a lot more purposeful with how I wanted to fund those hobbies going forward. When it takes a few weeks before I'm "allowed" to buy something new, it really forced me to be sure about what I was buying!

I also make each unnecessary spend -- whether shopping frivolously or eating out when I have perfectly good food at home -- count for double by depositing the same amount in savings. If you really want to rein yourself in, you could try saving double the amount of your spends to give each purchase a triple hit to your bank balance.
posted by phatkitten at 11:20 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

JD's advice is great. If you're not tracking your spending now, there are definitely good tools to make it super easy.

After many years of getting away from detailed personal finance tracking, I recently got up and running with Quicken again, and it is SO much easier to connect into all my financial accounts than 10 years ago. Dashboards and analytics all over, minimal manual tweeting, and....automated budget analysis. It will tell you how much you typically spend in different categories, and how far you are in that spending trend this month. That may be all you need, or maybe the answers will make you suck wind, but a whole lot of the figuring is done for you. Pretty nifty.
posted by Sublimity at 4:08 PM on February 5, 2016

I set up spreadsheets to track things minutely (unnecessary, but almost it was a bit of a game - can I track spending to the last cent - including bank fees, automatic payments etc - mononpoly or stock market via Excel), and had pivot tables and charts so I could see things as well. But the biggest motivator for the whole family was when I made a huge poster with a large thermometer on it, and each time money was saved (toward a deposit on a house) we'd colour in a new section. It kept the goal visible.
posted by b33j at 4:47 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is all great, thanks so much! Yes, i think JD's advice is very good, and I think that's what we're doing really -- we decided we spend more than is in line with our values/lifestyle choices. But we do need some tricks so that we can keep it up even when it gets tough. Thanks everyone!
posted by EtTuHealy at 5:19 AM on February 6, 2016

But we do need some tricks so that we can keep it up even when it gets tough.

This is where automation comes in. You're not struggling to make ends meet, so you have enough of a buffer that it could ALL be automated. If you want a game to imitate, use Candy Crush. You use the lives you've got, and then you've got to wait 20 minutes to play again. Use an allowance.

The system I'm going to tell you about requires minimal tracking after it is set up, it lets you spend what you want while keeping within a limit, and it lets you be super lazy while keeping up with all your bills. It requires next to no willpower or emotional control. You will need to do an inventory to set it up, but that's a once-a-year kind of thing.

Naming: Our bank lets us make as many accounts as we want and to name them. This is important to our system because the emotions work to your advantage: Taking money from Bill Payments is scary. Taking money from Vacations is sad. Taking money from my Allowance is a-okay.

Transfers: All of our money goes into savings and then is automatically distributed through a series of automatic transfers. I get to be super lazy and everything still gets paid! I even have an automatic transfer to my credit card so I pay at least the minimum payment if I forget.

I don't decide to limit myself to the money in my Allowance account. No, that monthly transfer is high enough that I never run out and low enough that I'm not spending like a maniac. It's for lunches and books and things like that.

I don't save for retirement through my willpower. That money never even hits my chequing account. In fact, my work sends this portion of my paycheque straight to my retirement account — I literally don't see it.

I don't remember to pay my regular bills. No, they are automated and paid from an account which gets automatic deposits to cover them (eg 1st of the month = condo fees, so that account gets a boost on the 25th every month).

I don't choose every month to save for travel, or renovations, or other goals. We have named accounts which get transfers.

Buffer: What's left over? That's a savings slush fund. It covers credit card bills, things you can't totally plan for. But dipping into it never jeopardizes our goal-oriented savings, our retirement savings, our emergency fund, or our bills.

If you don't want to rely on your willpower — and I suggest you don't! — then use the mighty power of automation. Don't fight your emotions. Take them out of the equation.
posted by sadmadglad at 2:18 PM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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