Using Mini-Games for Financial and Personal Improvement

Let me tell you three little stories about myself from the last few months.

* * *

I was invited to a party with about 25 other people in attendance, all of them roughly my age. I knew about four of them prior to this party; the other 20 or so were strangers. After being greeted by the host, I was largely left to my own means, so I did what introverts usually do in that situation: I tried to sink into the woodwork. I grabbed a beverage, found a spot that was somewhat out of the way, and sipped my beverage without saying anything.

Somewhere, a voice in the back of my head spoke up. What was the point of coming to this if I’m just going to stand here and sip a drink? I eventually decided that I was going to talk to some people, but how? How could I do that?

What I eventually did is invent a little game for myself. I simply decided that my goal was to introduce myself and get the names of every single person in the room, along with three interesting or noteworthy things about each of them. That was my goal, plain and simple.

This goal worked very well with my introverted state because it allowed me to just ask questions. I know quite well that it’s far easier for me to dip into a conversation if there’s a question being asked, so I just used that as a starting point.

I started walking up to people. “Hi, I’m Trent, what’s your name?” And then I’d ask, “So, what do you do?” And, “How do you know Jeff?” (Jeff was the host.) I would then mine the last two questions for some follow-up questions.

Almost every time, I learned quite a bit about the person I was talking to. I usually learned that person’s name, their job (or how they filled their time), whether they were married and had kids, their connection to Jeff, and, quite often, much more than that, including some of their hobbies and even, in a few cases, their political beliefs and religious values. I learned that one guy was a board game designer. I even managed to learn something that two people had in common and actually introduced them to each other, as they didn’t know each other.

From that night alone, four different people added me on social media and I’ve had follow-up conversations with three of them, and I’ve done things with two of them. I also ran into two other people I met there at a grocery store, where we learned that our sons were actually decent friends in school and we made some tentative plans for the future.

All of that came from a simple game I made up for myself at a party to convince myself not to be an introverted weirdo standing in the corner.

* * *

Not too long ago, I started carefully counting calories in an effort to lose weight. I’m using My Fitness Pal to record calories; most items are either obviously listed or can be scanned in with a UPC to make it really easy to count calories.

Each day, I have a calorie goal. My objective is to fit a lot of foods I like into that goal each day without feeling hungry at the end of the day.

It ends up being a game of sorts. You end up figuring out which items are really efficient in terms of calories and feeling full and having a lot of nutritional value, and then you start thinking about which of those that you really like to eat.

For example, I figured out that having an orange and two poached eggs for breakfast really hits the spot and leaves me feeling full until lunch time, as does a small bowl of oatmeal with a banana chopped up in it as an alternate choice. There’s roughly the same number of calories in both, give or take a little.

It’s fun to figure out how everything actually fits, but it’s also kind of fascinating to really notice my body’s response to various foods and calorie levels.

* * *

I decided about two months ago to save up and purchase a nice fountain pen – a Lamy 2000, to be specific. I use fountain pens with some beautiful inks every once in a while when writing nice note cards or other items. I mostly just use a TWSBI 580 fountain pen that I received as a gift years ago, but I want to have another piston-filling fountain pen and the Lamy 2000 is beautiful and very well constructed.

I started shopping around for one. I found a reasonable price. Then I found a better price. And a little bit better price. And I’ve kept shopping and shopping, trying to find the absolute best price I could on a Lamy 2000.

It’s turned into a game, really. How low can I go? I’ve found what I think is the lowest regular price I can possibly find for one… but will one go on sale somewhere soon? Where do I watch for a sale price on one? Can I find one on an auction site?

The “magic number” I’m looking at now is way lower than what I had budgeted for and saved for originally. The thing is, it really has turned into a game. Can I possibly find that low price?

* * *

These three stories all have one big common thread running through them. In each case, I took something about myself that I was unhappy with – being quiet at parties, eating too much, spending too much on frivolous things – and transformed overcoming those things into a personal game.

I went all introverted at a party – and I overcame it by making up a question game for myself and played it.

I ate too much during (and before) the holidays – and I overcame it by inventing a calorie counting game for myself.

I decided to spend a lot on a non-essential item – and I overcame it by playing a game where I sought a lower and lower price.

These games are actually similar in a lot of ways.

They all involve a goal or a high score…

  • The socializing game’s goal was to learn something about everyone at the party.
  • The calorie counting game’s goal is to keep my caloric intake below a certain number without feeling hungry.
  • The cheap pen hunting game’s goal is to find a particular item below a particular dollar amount.

They all involve little tiny steps toward success, like taking turns in a game…

  • The socializing game breaks down to nothing more than a brief conversation with a person.
  • The calorie game breaks down to nothing more than using a smartphone tool to see how many calories are in a meal.
  • The cheap pen game breaks down to doing a handful of web searches.

They all lead to a “win” that’s not only a victory at the game, but has results I’m happy with in my life…

  • The socializing game involves meeting and getting to know a bit about everyone in the room, which results in a few new friends and more people I know in my broader social circle and community.
  • The calorie game results in weight loss and better health outcomes, which provides me with more energy, a better body image, and less money spent on food and on health care.
  • The cheap pen game finds me the item I want at a very low price, which leaves me more money to spend on other hobbies.

* * *

The idea of changing something about yourself that you don’t like into a “game” of sorts is called gamification, and it’s a pretty hot area of study in psychology and related fields. In short, gamification seeks to transform difficult elements of self-improvement into some kind of structure that feels like a game and provides those same little bursts of pleasure that you get from completing a level in Candy Crush Saga or winning a round of a board game or finishing a level in Super Mario Brothers.

I find that, time and time again, gamification works well for me, but only when it’s on my terms. There are lots of different tools out there that try to turn new habits and other initiatives into a formal game of some kind, like Habitica or SuperBetter or into a tool like Streaks, but while those apps are fun, they can feel a lot like trying to fit a framework onto my life that doesn’t perfectly fit.

For me, gamification works best when I devise my own games and only use apps to track the results. There isn’t an “app” that encourages me to socialize in a game form; that’s something I invent myself and think about each time I go to a party. The same thing is true for other little games, like the “grocery store game” (which I’ll talk about in a bit) or other games I mention above.

In the same vein, gamification also works well when I choose really tiny steps to accomplish. When the next step is going to take a lot of effort or a big block of time, it’s very easy to say “nope” and give up. But look at the above examples. They’re pretty simple. Eat only two pieces of pizza instead of four – it’s easy. Walk up to somebody and ask them a couple of friendly questions – easy. Do whatever you want today, just don’t spend any money – easy. These aren’t insanely difficult things, but doing them consistently really adds up.

In other words, a good “game” needs specific clear rules, real time feedback, and clear constraints. In other words, what do I need to do, how am I doing, and when/where can I do it? Those questions need to be able to be easily answered at any point during the “game” to make it useful and repeatable and successful.

What about rewards? Rewards can help with motivation for some, but I usually am much happier with the results of my efforts rather than any rewards I’ve tied to it. If the results of the effort aren’t enough to motivate me and I need an additional reward, it’s very likely that the effort isn’t meaningful enough for me to stick with it. At best, I view it as a nice perk. There are a few specific exceptions to this, but they’re usually just a result of the output of the game rather than a separate reward.

With that being said, here are 12 more “games” I’ve successfully used for my own personal improvement over the last few years, separated into finance-themed games and other games.

Money-Themed ‘Games’

The “grocery store” game is a game I play at the store to keep myself from putting unnecessary items in my cart. I go into the store with a grocery list and I let myself put $20 of items that aren’t on the list in my cart. A kicker: If I don’t use up that full $20, I can add the remainder to my hobby budget for the month. This turns shopping into a game; if I see an item not on my list that I want to add, do I want to do that? Or would I rather have something else? Or an extra $20 in my budget?

The “money free” game is a simple game that’s really easy to play during a long stretch of “ordinary” days. Just see how many days you can string together without spending any money, excepting paying bills before their due date. No groceries – just eat what you have on hand. No entertainment expenses. No new hobby items. Nothing. How long can you do it? My record is 15 days, done during a summer stretch where we had a lot of fresh produce coming in from the garden.

The “net worth” game boils down to trying to continually set a new high score from your net worth (your net worth is simply the total value of everything you own and the value of your various accounts minus the total of all of your debts). Recalculate your net worth each month, then strive to set a new high score the following month. Better yet…

The “net worth change” game is the same as the “net worth” game above, except that your goal is to maximize the change in your net worth. You calculate your net worth in January, then again in February, and your actual score in February is the February net worth minus the January net worth. The higher you can get that number in a month, the better.

The “drugstore” game revolves around using a combination of manufacturer coupons, store coupons, flyer sales, and frequent shopper cards at drugstore chains like Walgreens or CVS to get items for free (or close to it). Can you find a perfect combination of two coupons and a sale to get the cost of a tube of Crest toothpaste down to a quarter at CVS? You can if you plan, and that’s the fun of it.

The “pantry” game is where I attempt to make as many meals as possible using solely the items in our pantry, supplemented only with some fresh produce as needed from the store. This game forces me to be creative with the items that we already have in our cupboards, using them up to make delicious new meals. This cuts down on our food costs, allows us to more freely buy in bulk, and makes sure that we use items before we go bad. I love doing this once every couple of months for an entire week’s worth of meals, so that the grocery trip during those weeks consists of just a stop in the produce section and perhaps $20 or $30 at the checkout.

Other Self-Improvement ‘Games’

The “socializing” game is a powerful one for introverts such as myself. It’s easy – all you have to do is have a conversation with a new person each day. It can be at the bus stop, the store, anywhere else. All you have to do in this conversation is learn the person’s first name and three things about that person. For me, it’s a game to see whether or not I can actually “click” with someone, which means I have to work on being social and overcoming my nervousness, and regular success at that game improves my social skills and potentially my social circle.

The “one more exercise” game involves choosing a particular exercise that you enjoy and then increasing the size of your set by one each day so that it’s more difficult than before. For example, if you do squats, start off one day by doing 10, then move to 11 the next day, then 12, and so on. Eventually, switch to a harder form and start over. You can do it with burpees or pushups or whatever. You can do it with time, too, by measuring the length of a wall sit or This is basically progression exercise, but it’s a great way to start off with an exercise routine that feels easy and not overwhelming and gradually builds as you get stronger, plus you get a great sense of accomplishment over the long haul.

Geocaching literally is a game that you can play that turns moderate exercise and exploring one’s environment into something you can keep score with. My goal in 2017 is to discover 20% more geocaches than I did in 2016, for example. Geocaching is basically a real-world treasure hunt, where you use GPS coordinates to find a treasure box that someone has stowed in the real world somewhere (usually in a park). Finding new ones usually means going further from home, going on hikes, and so forth, so not only does it encourage exercise, it also encourages exploration of the environment around you and finding out about new places and locales.

The “meditation or prayer” game is what I like to call a “chain” game. The goal of the game is to make a chain of days in which I do one simple thing every day. I find that meditation or prayer (things I consider very similar, in that the only difference between them is the focus of the activity) is a very powerful technique for helping with my focus and sense of calmness, so I try to do it every day and extend that chain. Because this is something I can literally do anywhere whenever I have ten or fifteen free minutes, it’s easy to make a very long chain.

The “learning” game is simply taking a step to learn something new every day. A great example of this comes from Duolingo, which makes learning a new language into a game. You “win” the game when you achieve some level of mastery, like completing a full language track in Duolingo or you complete all of the sessions in an online course or you finish reading a complex book.

The “journaling” game is simply filling up an entire notebook with journal entries. I’ve found that whenever I take the time to write out a journal entry, particularly when I’m wrestling with a problem in my life, I tend to feel better about the challenges I’m facing and I often have a plan and a brighter attitude about things. I usually strive to write an entry every day that includes a few things I’m grateful for, along with some extensive thoughts on the thing that’s troubling me the most at that moment. I delve into why it’s troubling me by using the “five whys” method (asking “why?” at every response, as if I were a curious five-year-old, and doing it at least five times in a row) until I come to a really sharp truth. Then I deal with that truth. I used to try to make “streaks” of this, but I actually find journaling to be more valuable when things are weighing on my mind or I want to think through something memorable or important rather than an every day routine, so instead I tend to value filling up entire notebooks. I keep them with pride, as I have quite a few of them full, and I get a lot of positive value out of reflecting on my life changes over the course of a journal. The “game” comes from sticking with it and using it as a regular tool, and the “reward” comes from a better life and a collection of journals that I love to leaf through.

Final Thoughts

All of these “games” are strategies that I use to improve almost every aspect of my life – financial, spiritual, intellectual, physical, and so on. Whenever I can couch things in terms of a personal challenge and then make the steps of that challenge small ones that I can tackle constantly, I get that little burst of pleasure from each step, like completing a stage in a game, and I sometimes get that big blast of victory that one gets from finishing a game.

The advantage here is that the game exists in real life and the process of completing the game makes my life better, personally, financially, spiritually, and otherwise.

Add some games to your life. You might just find it makes things better.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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