How to Save Money with a Video Gaming Hobby

Charlie writes in:

I loved your recent article on saving money on board games. Do you have something similar about video games? It is a really expensive hobby.

I’ll be honest: Up until about 2006 or 2007, video gaming used to be one of my main hobbies. I played video games of all kinds, but I preferred strategy and role playing games.

Since then, my passion for video games has subsided greatly. I play occasionally, but mostly in a purely social way. I’ll play games with my children and with old friends and once in a great while I’ll binge on a game, but time spent video gaming is a pretty rare thing for me these days.

Over the last year or two, however, I’ve had some opportunities to put my money saving skills to the test regarding video games. Our family currently owns a Wii U and our children also have portable game consoles for play in the car on long car trips.

With purchases like that, it’s unsurprising that my frugal nature perked up and went to work. Not only am I seeking out ways for Sarah and I to save money on games purchased as gifts, I’m also helping my own children find ways to stretch their allowance dollars if they want a new game. Here are some of the strategies I’ve figured out for making a video game hobby pretty cheap.

Remember That a Great Game Is a Great Game, Regardless of Age

Besides the aforementioned Wii U and the portable game consoles, we still have a Playstation 3 that we mostly use as our DVD/Bluray player. We have a handful of games for it as well.

The thing is, whenever I look into buying video games now, one of the first things I look for is what’s available for the PS3. Why? Often, those games are on pretty deep discount – after all, the PS4 has been out for a while and has a pretty healthy base of owners. The PS3 games are slowly disappearing from stores and in order to cut inventory, those games are on sale.

Better yet, most of those games that are still in stores are among the best games ever made for the PS3.

Over the last year, I’ve seen both used and new copies of games like Red Dead Redemption, Portal 2, The Last of Us, Destiny, Uncharted 2, the Batman Arkham series, and so on, all of them with really low prices. All of those games provide a stellar gaming experience.

A game that was great six or seven years ago is still going to be a great experience and well worth playing through. The only difference is that the graphics might be 720p instead of 1080p… and, oh yeah, it’s about 80% cheaper.

This brings us to an obvious strategy…

Buy Used Games

Don’t head out to your local department store to buy video games (with a couple of exceptions, which I’ll get to in a minute). Instead, do most of your video game buying at a used game retailer. GameStop is the large national chain that deals in these games, but there are many local stores and regional chains as well.

The way used video game retailers work is pretty simple. Gamers go there and sell their used video games for either cash or a bit more store credit. Then, the store puts those used games up for sale for a higher price than that. You might go in there and sell a game for $10 or $15 in store credit, but then the store will put it out for sale for $20. They serve as a pretty effective middleman here.

Obviously, you won’t be picking up the latest and greatest games by doing this, but you can usually pick up games that were game of the year contenders in the last few years. Remember, a great game tends to remain a great game for many, many years.

There is one key caveat about used games, however, and it’s something that you should follow any time that you pick up a used game. Immediately examine the disc carefully for scratches or markings. If there’s a noticeable number of scratches or marks on the disc, be very careful about taking it home. Most discs can be repaired with various disc repair tools, but it’s not always a guarantee and it’s not something you should deal with if you can avoid it.

Play Through Games Fully

One thing that many video gamers do is to play a game for a while, only make partial progress with it, and then buy a different game, leaving that partially completed game gathering dust. Because it’s partially completed, the person who owns it is often not too interested in selling it yet, but they’re constantly jumping to whatever game is new.

Not only is such a pattern really expensive (because of the constant influx of games that’s required to sustain it), it also prevents you from getting the full joy out of the games that you do own.

I advocate a different approach. Instead of just jumping to a new game, strive to complete the games that you already have.

For me, “completion” varies from game to game. Some games have an obvious ending, while other games might signify completion in other ways, such as achieving the highest level in the game or earning a particular set of achievements. Many modern games have multiple ways to evaluate success and completion, leaving it to the gamer to decide for themselves.

My advice is simple. Focus on playing through games until you reach that end goal, whatever it may be, so that you can feel as though you’re “truly” done with the game and can sell it.

What about variety, though? I usually encourage people to sell and pick up several games at once so that you don’t have to play the exact same game over and over again. Variety is the spice of life, after all. If you sell, say, four games at once, that will often provide you the resources to pick up three games with very little additional money (if any).

Put Extra Value on Replayability

Another thing well worth considering is the replayability of a game. Is it rewarding to play through that game again?

Some games tend to wear out their welcome after a playthrough or two, even if those games are quite enjoyable during those playthroughs. You can go back and play them again to get 100% achievements, but some games are often finished after just a few playthroughs. Sure, those playthroughs might be long, but there’s a certain cap on playing them.

Other games offer a lot of replayability. They tend to continue to test your skills no matter how many times you’ve played them. Strategy games often fall into this category, as do simulation and sports games and some flavors of action games. You can keep playing and playing them and getting better and better at them.

In terms of extracting value from a game, games with more replayability offer a lot more value to the gamer. I like to look at it in terms of hours of fun per dollar, and any game that sinks below $1 per hour of fun is a worthwhile investment. Games with a lot of replayability tend to make that threshold easy – games where you play through them once and are done with them tend to not quite make it there.

Consider replayability strongly when you’re looking at purchasing a game.

Own Discounted Consoles from the Previous Generation

One way to really take advantage of used games is something I mentioned in the first section of this article when I was discussing our continued use of our PS3. I bought our PS3 new right at the start of the previous generation of consoles and paid a hefty sum for it, but it’s still running fine almost a decade later.

The thing is, our family still plays games on it, as I mentioned above. All of the previous generations of consoles have extensive libraries of really good games, all of which are well worth playing.

As I write this, the current generation of consoles are the WiiU/PS4/Xbox One generation. That means that most video game stores, both used and new stores, have lots of games from the previous generation – Wii/PS3/Xbox 360 – and their supply is slowly dwindling. Most of the truly great games from that generation are still available and are marked down to a pretty low price. Most of the really good games from that generation is $20 or less at this point.

Furthermore, the consoles themselves are quite cheap, too, especially if you buy a certified pre-owned console from a used game store. All consoles from that generation can be found under $100 if you look around and that price will continue to slip as stores divest themselves of consoles from that generation.

In other words, if you’re a frugal video gamer, now’s the time to actually buy one of those consoles. The price is cheap, they all have extensive libraries of great games, and those games can be found very inexpensively, too.

Sell Games Once You’re Done with Them

Once you’ve played through a game that you really enjoy, it can be tempting to hang onto that game. It was a great experience, right? Wouldn’t you want that on your shelf?

The problem with that is similar to the problem with saving well-loved books: most of the time, you’ll never, ever replay them, and the longer they sit on your shelf, the less value you’ll be able to get from those games.

So, once you’ve finished up a game, when you’ve seen the ending and you’ve earned most of the achievements, and you find yourself moving on to other games, sell the older game. It will likely never have more value than it has right now and you can turn it into some new games to play.

Sure, there will be a game or two that you might want to replay five years or ten years from now. If you find yourself in that situation, find those games later on when the urge strikes you. However, the truth is that you’ll never want to replay 95% of the games that you’ve finished up with, so you might as well get value from them now.

Check Craigslist, But Be Careful

Craigslist can be another great source for used games if you’re looking to bypass the used game store cycle. It’s easy to find people selling games on Craigslist, often people selling off collections because they need some cash for some personal purpose. Most of the time, the prices are pretty reasonable, too.

I’ve bought many games off of Craigslist without an issue, but I’ve followed a few guidelines when doing so.

First, I meet with the seller to buy games. I don’t deal with “deliveries” or anything like that. I take the cash with me to meet with the seller in a public place.

Second, I examine each disc that I’m buying very carefully, looking for dings, dents, and scratches. The vast majority of the discs are free from noticeable scratches, and even one small one or two is fine, but if I see tons of scratches, I don’t buy.

Third, I test the discs as soon as I get home. I also own a disc fixer so if a scratched disc slips by me, I can still fix it. I have actually never had to do this since I started being vigilant about scratches, though.

These tactics have kept me from taking home a bad game from a Craigslist purchase.

Use Craigslist to Sell Games to Undercut GameStop

What about selling on Craigslist? I’m all in favor of selling games once you’ve played through them fully, as mentioned above. It’s a great way to make new games essentially free or incredibly cheap.

The problem is that if you sell those used games at GameStop, you’re going to get GameStop prices for them. As I mentioned above, you might get $10 for a game that they’ll immediately sell for $20.

One approach well worth considering is to slightly undercut GameStop via Craigslist, which saves the buyer a little money and puts much more money in your pocket.

How would that work? Let’s say you have this game that GameStop would buy for $10 and sell for $20. What you can then do is list it on Craigslist for $17 or so and mention that it’s $20 at GameStop. Of course, I’ve done my homework first – I check and see what the game sells for at GameStop.

I find that doing this often gets people to contact me wanting to buy the game. They feel that they’re getting a deal.

For me, I’m getting $17 instead of $10 out of that used game. If I sell several games at once, that likely adds up to an extra “new to me” game or two.

Watch Store Flyers for Discounted New Games

What about new games? I’ll be the first to admit that I often want to get our children the newest games that they really want when gift-giving occasions come around. How do I keep that from becoming overly expensive?

My main strategy is to watch store flyers carefully for a few months before a gift-giving occasion. I’ll listen to my children and figure out what games they’re interested in, then I’ll start watching carefully for sales. I also watch sales online at places like Amazon, usually by using CamelCamelCamel.

What I look for is a significant discount on one of the games I’m looking for. If a new release receives a $20 discount – something that happens fairly often – I’ll pull the trigger immediately.

This does involve a bit of time, but it’s something I can do on my laptop in the evening while just hanging out around the house and it only takes a few minutes. All you have to do is visit the websites of major retailers and download their flyers to keep up to date on the latest prices.

Watch Video Game Forums Online for Discounted Games, Too

Another good strategy for watching for discounts is to watch video game forums, especially those that focus on discounted video games. I particularly like to follow Patient Gamers and Cheap Gamer, myself. Usually, if a big discount shows up on one site, it quickly shows up on the other sites, too, so there’s no real need to follow a lot of sites.

Not only are these sites good for finding really good deals on the specific games you might be looking for, it can also be useful for finding hidden gems you might not know about. The commentary on such sites usually focuses heavily on replayability, which, as I noted above, is a big factor in saving money on video games.

Build a Steam Box

Perhaps the best option available for discounted gaming is found on PCs through the Steam platform. Steam offers many, many, many great games at very discounted prices and you can often find older games on there for mere pennies a few years after their release.

The problem is that a decent gaming PC is pretty expensive. Not only that, it lacks the ability to plop down in front of the television for a quick game.

Building a Steam Box solves the second problem, at least. A Steam Box is a dedicated PC built solely to play games downloaded from Steam on your television, which you can play with a controller in your hand.

The value proposition here is a little different than buying a normal console. You’re going to end up spending significantly more on the console itself, but if you stop playing games on it, hey, you’ve got a fully functional PC for home use. However, once you have it all set up, your access to games is incredibly inexpensive. There are more great $5 games available on Steam than I’d ever be able to play, and we’re not even talking about the big semi-annual Steam sales where games are discounted through the floor. Games are cheap on Steam because there is no physical media involved whatsoever.

So, how do you build one? Well… it can be complicated. You can buy a Steam Box directly from a manufacturer for a decent price (though you really need to shop around, as there are lots of manufacturers for them). You can also build one yourself. No matter what, though, you’re going to be spending money comparable to a decent PC, which is going to be more than a console. The thing to remember is that you’ll save money on the back end through much, much cheaper software and the ability to actually use it as a PC (if you have a wireless keyboard and a mouse, it’s basically a PC hooked up to your TV).

Final Thoughts

Video gaming can be a relatively inexpensive hobby. There are tons of ways to cut costs on console gaming, and if you go the Steam Box route, games are very cheap once you have the initial box set up.

However, there’s one overriding strategy that will keep you from burning much money at all on this hobby: avoid the “cult of the new.” As long as you’re willing to wait on the latest consoles and the newest games, you can drastically reduce the amount of money you spend on a gaming hobby.

With the exception of a handful of newer games that are mostly in the domain of my children, the games I play most frequently are several years old now. I’ll sometimes play Civilization V on my computer, which is a few years old at this point. When I actually play a video game downstairs on my own, it’s usually a classic from the PS3 era like Red Dead Redemption, which is almost a decade old at this point.

Why? Good games remain fun regardless of their age. There’s no good reason to be in the “cult of the new” when it comes to video games.

If you stick to that basic rule through thick and thin, video games can provide a hobby that’s well below $1 per hour for entertainment, which is a spectacularly good value proposition when it comes to hobbies.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.