Personal Finance

Money Hacking Your Brain: Make Savings a Must-Win Game

Set goals

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For better or worse, I was a competitive young child. I wanted to get the best grades and be the president of absolutely everything. I was a real pain in the ass to play board games with, and at times resorted to yelling and/or tears. Since then, I’ve calmed down significantly, realizing that board games do not, in fact, measure a person’s worth. Nowadays, I try to channel my competitive side into things that actually matter, like my money, and away from things that don’t, like a casual game of Chutes and Ladders.

The first time I ever did this—not realizing what I was doing, at the time—was when I decided to save up a bunch of money to quit my job. Over the course of eight months, I competed to see how much money I could hoard away. Granted, I really wanted to quit my job, so I attacked from all angles and exceeded my own expectations. Looking back, I understand that it was this idea of “gamification” that allowed me to surmount my original goal. Even for money goals, I’m less jazzed about, such as saving for an emergency fund, I’ve learned to focus the power of my competitive spirit towards doing difficult money things.

Here’s why it works

This is all about changing the angle from which you look at saving. Instead of thinking “look at all the things I am giving up,” you work towards a specific money goal and think “look at how much I am gaining, look at how close I am getting to my goal.” It may sound wishy-washy, but how we frame problems and challenges has a lot to do with whether we overcome them. And anyway, it’s way more fun.

When you consistently set money goals that are within reach that you are able to hit, you will likely be inspired to set and work towards more goals. Why? Because setting and surpassing small goals can actually cause your brain to release dopamine, which is the chemical that controls motivation. You’ll be inspired to do more and more, the feeling of success reinforced further through dopamine release.

As Kristin Wong points out in her new book, Get Money, you’ve been exposed to this type of “gamification” before. Do you play McDonald’s monopoly game? Maybe drive-thru more than you normally would because you only need one Park Place piece and you win a lifetime supply of french fries!? McDonald’s gamified the buying of their food. Though not always as blatant as Mcdonald’s, businesses use gamification all of the time to motivate potential customers to buy their products. So why not turn this billion-dollar strategy inward, and use games and competition to save (instead of spend)?

Wong’s whole book, in fact, is on how to gamify your money. Instead of chapters, she’s created levels that you can beat, like a Nintendo game. It’s a genius concept for a money book, and I highly recommend it. But for those of you that feel like you won’t stick to another plan in another finance book (I get it), simply take the idea and make it your own. Pick one goal at a time to work on, and set up some parameters to make it into a competition with yourself—or even better, with an accountability buddy.

Some might scoff at the idea of doing this with a friend—who would talk money with friends, how gauche!—and I agree that your person must be trustworthy and kind, but I’m also tired of the notion that money is more taboo than sex, politics, and your frickin’ BMI. (Some women at the corporate job I worked for six years had a weight loss competition, where they “weighed in” weekly, in front of their entire department. You’re telling me that getting publicly weighed in front of Bill from accounting is less traumatizing or embarrassing than setting money goals with your bestie? Um yeah, that’s weird.)

Here’s how to do it

Most people will be working on one of two goals: saving money or paying down debt. Your first step should be to pick which of the two you’ll want to work towards. If you’ve got a credit card or other high-interest debt, work on paying those down. If you need to save more money, work towards an emergency fund, a down payment, retirement, or any other financial goal. Once you’ve named the goal, determine how much money you need to “reach” this goal. For example, let’s say that you want to save $2,000 for your emergency fund by the end of the year, in six months. (Notice that we’re utilizing S.M.A.R.T. goals here, by choosing a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.)

It can be helpful to take this number and divide it by the number of months; in this case, saving $2,000 in six months would require saving $333.33 per month. Now we know what we’re up against. I don’t do this because I get so hung up on the numbers, but to have a general understanding of what will be required of me. And then without overthinking it, I hit the goal hard. I take no prisoners. Not only am I going to try to reach my goal, but I’m going to try to obliterate it—to see if I can best even my own expectations.

To do this yourself, write the following down, somewhere you can see it:


Total cost:

End date:

How many months until end date:

Monthly cost:

Need some ideas?

Goal: Start my retirement fund

Total cost: $3,000

End date: March 1st

How many months until end-date: 8 months

Monthly cost: $375

Goal: Pay off one of my credit cards

Total cost: $1,200

End date: October 1st

How many months until end-date: 3 months

Monthly cost: $400+ (will pay more in interest, to calculate, use an interest calculator)

There are two additional elements that I believe are the key to success here: First, couple each financial goal with a delightful little prize. If you’ve reached your goal, go and buy yourself a treat, whether that’s a night away at a cute cabin, a new pair of shoes, a video game, or whatever. It helps if it’s something that you wouldn’t normally buy yourself, giving you that extra boost to really compete.

Second, visually track the progress that you make. To me, this is the most satisfying part. This could mean coloring in a spreadsheet each time you save another $100 or pay $1,000 off your credit card debt. Veronika from the blog, Debts to Riches, actually moves chocolate coins from one jar into another each time she pays $1,000 to her student debt, creating satisfying, small hurdles as she works towards a larger goal.

She started with $130,400 in student debt, and that number was overwhelming so she’s broken it down into chunks. What I also love about Veronika is that she will not hesitate to exceed her goal pace. You could use this same strategy with retirement; it’s hard to think about saving money to use decades from now; but what can you do this year? Turn those big goals into short-term competitions.

In summary, set an achievable goal, adjust your mindset to one of healthy competition, get a buddy if you can, set a prize for a completed goal, and create a visual representation of your progress. Then go, as they say, balls to the wall. (I just learned today that this is an aviation reference. Thanks, Google.)

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