How I Gamify Ways to Save Money

By Bethany Johnson, Contributor, on December 27, 2017

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Not too long ago, I was barely hitting my financial goals. I was just making it, crawling across each finish line. It wasn’t pretty. If I wanted to achieve my business goals, I definitely had some changes to make.

I needed ways to save money that would energize me to look at the next challenge. I wanted that shot of adrenaline that comes from competition. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than a friendly game.

That’s when I realized I could gamify my savings. Here’s how.

Basic Rewards

I started with a simple rewards system. When I saved a certain amount, I recorded how long it took to reach that goal, and then rewarded myself with an episode of my favorite show. Then, I started over. The goal? Save the same amount of cash in a shorter amount of time. If I beat my original “score,” I got to watch another episode. And so on, until the season was over. The game kept me from binge-watching shows, procrastinating on assignments and impulse spending. To me, that’s a win-win-win.

If ever I reach the season finale of a show, I know I’ve worked pretty hard. To celebrate, I give myself an extra prize: a peek at how time will help me save even more. In other words, I calculate my compound interest. I simply plug my current account balance into the compound interest calculator, along with the contribution rate and annual percent yield of a likely scenario. Then, I hit “calculate,” and wait for the good news.

Augmented Reality

Remember “Pokémon Go”? After reading Newsweek’s logical conclusion that the game’s addictive power came from mixing real and unreal elements, I decided to augment my own reality. Instead of hoping for a vacation someday, I posted a picture of where we’d take the whole family if I saved enough in time to do it. And instead of music, sometimes I worked to the sounds of a rainforest, beach or another distinct getaway location.


I knew I’d need to up my game (pun intended) if I wanted to keep up the momentum of gamifying my savings.

So I crafted an avatar.

Who doesn’t love a protagonist? Growing up in the ’80s, I’d skip dinner to help Mario and Luigi in their quest. Today, I project my successes and failures onto a little character I made on DoppelMe, an avatar-creation site that lets you customize your persona. So when I’m on track to achieve my goals, my avatar can be found on a ski slope, loving life. But if I veer off-course and hit the shoe store after a client meeting, you’ll find my avatar in a jail cell for a few days. It’s silly, sure, but I love seeing my little avatar in happy circumstances.

Loss of Life

Rewards and cute personas are great, but soon I needed consequences for any money-saving failures.

So I did what any game nerd would do: I crafted a simple health bar based off of my basic income and expenses spreadsheet. Two factors fed my “health.” Any amount transferred to savings increased life. But a week or more between transfers to savings, and my little algorithm was alerted to take life from my HP (which, by the way, is “health points” in nerd-speak).

You don’t need to be a spreadsheet ninja to create your own health bar. It doesn’t even need to be a bar, as PCWorld magazine points out. A simple whiteboard and colorful dry erase markers can do the job — as long as you update it consistently.

An Opponent

I love how a friendly competition can bond people. That’s why I enjoy the challenges occasionally posted in my entrepreneurs’ accountability group. Sometimes I’ll instigate. “Who here will bet me a month of streaming, ad-free focus music that I can’t save $___ by the end of the quarter?” The practice began when I challenged my buddies to wake up early with me to get some work done before sunrise. So when the idea hit me to provoke my most competitive (good-natured) friends as one of my ways to save money, I knew I’d struck gold.

An Element of Uncertainty

I love feeling lucky. In his official TED talk, author and theorist Tom Chatfield calls building a gamification technique around this sensation a “neurological goldmine,” because unlike expected rewards, surprise incentives activate parts of the brain and deliver a shot of dopamine. And that dopamine makes me want to try again and again. Here’s how it works.

  • For every increment I save, I fold an index card and drop it in a bag.
  • I mark every fifth card with a dollar sign.
  • For any above-and-beyond transfers to savings, I add an extra card with a dollar sign.
  • At the end of each month, I stick my hand in the bag. Without looking, I pull out one card. If it has a dollar sign, I splurge on some cool new office equipment (or a massage).

The more I save, the more chances I have to “win.” Meanwhile, my account grows.

There’s an App for That

These ideas are fun, but you don’t need to turn your house into an arcade just to establish good habits. To try it out, download a mobile app like Habitica. The rewards, characters and challenges are all there, motivating you to build good habits and find new ways to save money.

For freelancers, the skill of setting and hitting goals is a vital one. These fun ideas can kill the monotony that often comes with making good financial choices.

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