How to Gamify the Journey to FI
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I’ve been reading a bunch of books lately on human behavior with the latest being Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology. The author went through the process of highlighting addictive behavior for substances as well as games and this got me thinking. Why can’t we do that a bit with money management. Why are people very willing to pay hundreds of dollars (yes many have) and spend hours to take care of an imaginary farm (Farmville) or get to a fake celebrity status (Kim Kardashian’s app). Full disclosure that I’ve not played either, but received tons of requests in the past for Farmville. A game takes effort, takes time and takes a bit of strategy. In a similar vein, managing and optimizing your finances requires as much effort especially if you want to do the unconventional and reach the level of financial independence.
I thought I would sit down and see how we can gamify the journey to FI based on existing principles of how to engineer an addictive gaming experience. From the book, the criteria for an addictive gaming experiences includes the following elements:
Habits & Architecture
There’s a lot that goes on into designing a game that people can play for hours. If we sit down to look at some very popular games like Mario Bros, Tetris, or Fortnite, we can see many similarities across the games especially on how they make us feel. Some games seem fairly easy, but underlying all games is the desire for people to be challenged, to achieve something, to compete and to be good. Unfortunately, there is a sad reality that some of the games out there exploit human behavior for financial gain, so let’s flip the switch and instead map out the journey to financial independence into its own game using the elements above.
The goal of financial independence (FI) is pretty straightforward. It’s to reach a point where your investment income pays for your expenses. That’s the most simple definition. Doing so requires diligence, cleverness and a desire to do something a bit differently than the average person. In the game Mario Bros, the goal is to make it through eight worlds in the Mushroom Kingdom to save and free the princess. Along the way, Mario battles enemies, collects coins and powers and generally tries to survive crossing the eight worlds. It’s not easy and a player must learn who the enemies are, what secret powers are hidden where and how to smoothly navigate the various worlds and sub-worlds. In FI, it’s the same way. We have to navigate multiple milestones (which I cover below), we must know where the hidden optimizations are and we must continue to learn and build on top of that knowledge to get to the end of financial independence. While the goal in Mario Bros. is to save the princess, we might say that the goal of FI is reclaim our time and make our money work for us instead of the other way around.
In all games, there’s constant feedback on how we are doing. This can be through sounds, flashing lights, and level celebrations. It’s the same on the journey to FI, but maybe not as exciting. Some of the feedback we experience may be painful, especially when it’s foolish mistakes we make about money, but all in all, mistakes are a learning experience that compounds to build a healthy financial knowledge base. It’s also rare that we celebrate financial wins, though being part of the FI community has allowed me to be more open about sharing wins. I love that in the Facebook groups, people celebrate going #debtfree so I think we need to change a bit of our culture to celebrate these wins instead of the opposite where we encourage each other on to purchase items that are beyond our financial capacity (i.e. wedding, house, brand new car).
The biggest challenge with personal finance is that it’s personal and we don’t nearly talk about it enough. There continues to be a stigma talking about money and when majority of your personal circle struggles with money management, it’s hard to celebrate your money wins in a way that doesn’t alienate you or your family. We need to change this for the good of all of us.
Progress is important in a gaming experience. How will we know if we reach a stage or a new level? In the FI community, there’s the The Milestones of FI that Joel of FI180.com introduced us to. I am sure there are other levels that we can define since FI is a spectrum, but let’s stick with these for the time being.
Half FI - This is when you save up half your FI number. This calls for celebration because you are halfway there. “Half FI is also a meaningful milestone for working couples like my wife and I: assuming an even split in your expenses, it’s the point in which your better (and luckier!) half is completely FI.”
Lean FI - This is the point where you can passively cover all essential expenses like food and shelter, but not discretionary expenses just yet. “I like to think of Lean FI as an emergency fund that can cover infinitely many months of essential expenses.”
Flex FI - This is the point when you’ve saved 20 times your annual expenses which provides you some flexibility in what you can do and gives you options. Options are important in FI.
FI - This is the point when you’ve saved up 25 times your annual expenses, and you can safely draw 4% on your portfolio, forever!
Fat FI - This is the point when you’ve saved up to up 30 times your annual expenses
So imagine these as levels on the journey to FI. As you reach each level, the sounds ding, the lights flash and you get ushered into the next level. We would all be keen on continuing to play. An important thing to note that the journey to financial independence is on a spectrum and it is not a one game and it’s all over approach. Remember, even Mario had multiple lives. The more you “play” and participate in optimizing your financials, the faster you will be able to get to the next level. In any of the cases, your only competition is yourself so you have wise up and figure out how to play each level in a way that gets you there faster.
The interesting thing with FI is that the more you save up front, the faster it will actually be to reach the other levels. When you acquire and save money, the money works for you as long as it is invested properly. The savings become part if your army per se and can help push you to make smarter, better decisions. They can also provide you the confidence to pursue opportunities that you may not have even considered. In the same vein, the more you play a game or the higher you get to the levels, the more your gaming skills improve. Over time, you learn where the hidden traps are, you know the best way to defeat the bad guys, and you know exactly where to hide so you don’t get killed by a Koopa Troopa.
When you start out on the journey to FI, you don’t start with a lot of knowledge. It’s all about basic money management when you start, but as the years progress, as your experience grows, you tend to begin pursuing advanced FI techniques.
What’s a game without a cliffhanger. It’s that moment where you think, it this the end for me (my character). The music starts to play. You start to panic and sweat and you make the move anyways and the leap either gets you to the next level or it kills your whole game. There are similar cliffhangers on the journey to FI. Losing a job can be one of them especially when you are counting on that job to get you to the next level. Life is not fair and while we can plan as much as we want, shit still happens so those cliffhangers will forever be around the corner, but the good news is that with a FI strategy, those cliffhangers normally have a happier ending because the main character (that’s you) have saved up multiple lives.
If you’ve ever watched the comings and goings of the Choose FI Facebook group, you will see an insane amount of interaction. From discussions to friendly arguments to downright opposition, FI encourages conversation just like any game encourages players to talk strategy, share tips and best practices. If you are a gamer, I’m sure there are many forums out there where you come and chat with fellow players. Even in Ready Player One, Parzival has Art3mis, Aech, Sho and Daito to talk strategy. This is also the upside to joining the FI community, you don’t do it alone. You have the opportunity to speak and learn from others. Social interaction is important and it also helps all of us get more comfortable talking about money and how best to optimize it for our own needs.
Habits and Architecture
More importantly as you start playing the FI game, you become slightly addicted to getting to the next level. You begin to create habits and build systems that get you to the next level, in the same vein that you probably now have rituals and processes before playing your favorite game. As with any game, the key is to find balance. FI is after all a journey, so while you are in the game, enjoy it. Don’t rush to get through all of the levels because once you get to the end, you do have to find a new game to play which can be good or bad.
So if you’ve thought personal finances was a boring topic, perhaps it’s time to look at it from a different lens. Put your game face on and see how you can make a game of optimizing your finances to reach certain levels. Of course, you don’t have to follow the Milestones above, but create your own and work towards adjusting your habits to meet the milestones. A big part of the gaming experience is celebrating victories and levels reached so don’t forget to do this. Celebrate going debt free. Celebrate reaching a savings goals. Secondly, talk to others about your experience. It’s in the sharing of strategies that we all get to the final level.
Many of today’s apps now also incorporate points, badges and leader boards to entice everyone to join the competition. This is another way to do get everyone involved and make a game out of very mundane tasks. So while no one will probably giving you a point for paying your bill on time, pat yourself in the back instead for doing so and while badges for maximizing your savings aren’t a thing, hold your head up high for accomplishing what most people are not able to do. In the end, the competition is within yourself so don’t wait on external validation to keep going.
Alright, that was my take on gamification of the journey to FI. I am not much of a gamer and I don’t even have gaming apps on my phone and my last video game was probably Mario Bros., so forgive me if I butchered some of the gaming language there, but I think you get the gist of it. Find something about personal finances that will allow you to enjoy it a way that it benefits your present and future self. Instead of spending your energy in a virtual world, why not spend it in the real world where you can make your life a little better. Remember that as with any game, the journey to financial independence takes patience, anticipation, timing and strategy.
You know what the best part too with the FI Game is that it’s free. Free to download, free to start playing and free to track your progress. That’s a lot more than we can say for some of those apps that require you to purchase lives or to remove ads. If you want to track your FI progress, I recommend Personal Capital which aggregates ALL of your accounts in one place so you can see at what level you are in. Sorry, there are no ringing sounds or balloons getting released in this app, but I am sure you can make up your own victory celebration.
I want to know if you’ve every thought of managing your finance as a serious game. Let me know in the comments below.
Here are also other articles that take on the analogy of playing life like a video game.
While writing this post, I may or may not have watched a Mario Bros. game being played. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.