Turn Your Finances Into a Game

Playing games makes people feel good. Can that translate into saving and spending more wisely?

No one would disagree that taking the time to manage your finances is rewarding, at least in the long run. But few would call it fun. That's changing, however, as financial institutions and Web sites start to take cues from World of Warcraft, Farmville and other games. Why? Consider that more than 180 million people in the U.S. play video games for an average of more than 56 hours each month, according to a 2012 report from Filene Research Institute, a credit union think tank. In fact, in the U.S. games account for nearly half of the time spent on mobile apps. By contrast, consumers spend less than three hours per month on financial planning and budgeting.

What if you could "gamify" your finances? Gamification—and yes, there is such a buzzword—refers to the application of game design and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. The intent is to harness the positive chemical reactions that humans experience when interacting with games. Gabe Zichermann, author of Gamification Revolution, lists three main gamification elements: feedback (think progress bars, leader boards or badges), friends (collaborating with or measuring yourself against colleagues, family, friends or the real world) and fun (almost anything, from completing a quest to playing a role to participating in a casino-like slot or scratch-off game).

Big winners. Gamification has been suc­cessful in a number of areas, including finance. During a six-month pilot last year, for example, 14 credit unions en­couraged members to use SaveUp (opens in new tab), a site that employs prin­ciples of game design to reward responsible behaviors, such as whittling debt, boosting savings and improving financial literacy (by watching targeted videos, say, or taking quizzes). At the end of the pilot, 55% of users said the program motivated them to pay down debt, increase savings or both. Along the way, users watched more than 7,800 videos and nearly 250 won prizes, among them several $1,000 prize winners.

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SaveUp users register their various financial accounts at the site, including savings and checking accounts, credit cards, student loans, IRAs, and so on. (The site has bank-level encryption, and financial-account numbers and log-ins are not saved.) A positive financial action earns you credits. Redeem your credits to play various games and you might win prizes ranging from gift cards to a car or vacation to a $2 million jackpot. And SaveUp periodically poses challenges to its users. Last January, for example, the site offered one entry toward $10,000 in cash prizes for every day that you did not spend money.

A host of other game-savvy sites are focused on finances. Payoff (opens in new tab) aims to help you pare debt and save money; PiggyMojo (opens in new tab) and ImpulseSave (opens in new tab) focus on turning thoughtless spending into thoughtful saving. Wall Street Survivor is a virtual stock market game in which users complete "missions" (and earn virtual rewards) by reading articles, watching videos and taking quizzes about investing concepts before managing a virtual portfolio.

Study up. Before you play one of these games, make sure the provider's interests are aligned with yours. The potential for manipulation—to get you to use a particular service or product—shouldn't be overlooked, especially where money is concerned. "Just because an experience is fun and your friends are doing it doesn't mean you don't have to do your research," cautions Zichermann.

And prepare to engage with your finances more often. SaveUp CEO Priya Haji says that some 25% of registered users come to SaveUp's site every day. Look at it this way, she says: If dealing with your personal finances is akin to taking your vitamins, then gamifying your finances is like taking gummy vitamins.

Anne Kates Smith is a senior editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

Anne Kates Smith
Executive Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Anne Kates Smith brings Wall Street to Main Street, with decades of experience covering investments and personal finance for real people trying to navigate fast-changing markets, preserve financial security or plan for the future. She oversees the magazine's investing coverage,  authors Kiplinger’s biannual stock-market outlooks and writes the "Your Mind and Your Money" column, a take on behavioral finance and how investors can get out of their own way. Smith began her journalism career as a writer and columnist for USA Today. Prior to joining Kiplinger, she was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and a contributing columnist for TheStreet. Smith is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., the third-oldest college in America.