I’ll admit it. I really, really wanted to win Starbucks for Life—the 30 years’ worth of drinks that the coffee giant is giving away next year. Every time I’d tap my phone’s screen to “shake” the little animated snow globe that’s part of the game, I felt a surge of excitement. As each token collected, I could visualize myself sipping on free daily lattes until I turned old and grey. Sure, I knew I was spending money, but this was fun. Also, this was coffee. What’s not to love?
It wasn’t until I was two weeks into buying a venti-something (Every. Single. Day.) that I finally looked at my budget, and I was horrified. I’d managed to spend nearly $100, and I still only had one lonesome token—you need to collect three total—toward winning the elusive prize. It was at this point that the on-screen winter wonderland began to lose a bit of its luster, and I began to see that my bank account balance was falling much quicker than those teensy snowflakes.
But I’m usually pretty good with my money. And I feel like I know when I’m being tricked by a business (shoutout, Macklemore). So what gives? How had they managed to suck me in so handily?
The Lure of The Game
When companies like Starbucks use game play to encourage a purchase—commonly referred to as “gamification”—they’re getting you to play by enticing you to buy, explains Rosemary Caligiuri, managing director at financial planning firm United Capital’s Langhorne, Pennsylvania office. “These games appeal to people who want a chance at something bigger than the everyday experience,” she says. “While they might offer small, tangible rewards, they’re also getting you in the door more and more, creating more temptation to spend more than you otherwise might, in a way that can end up very detrimental to your finances.”
While it may seem like the easiest solution to avoiding getting sucked in by gamification would be to simply avoid it (duh), that’s often easier said than done, explains Scott Ward, Certified Financial Planner and senior associate with Johnson+Sterling. Today, gaming is part of American culture. According to a recent survey conducted by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, 211 million Americans—about 70% of the population—play video games on at least one type of device. “We’re comfortable with games,” Ward says. “And it’s the carefree quality of the game that can pose a challenge to our finances. Sometimes automation can actually reinforce a bad habit.”
So what gives? How had they managed to suck me in so handily?
A Change of Mindset
Thankfully, gamification can actually help consumers, too. There are many apps that let you track the progress of your financial goals and stay on top of your bills and budget, Caligiuri says. Instead of rewarding you with free “stars” or “tokens,” these games give you the satisfaction of hitting financial milestones. “Paying down a large credit card balance feels so much different to someone when they can see a red bar of debt shrinking over time on an app,” she says.
In years past, some Americans used to have “mortgage-burning” parties, where they would literally set fire to the slip of paper detailing their debt as soon as their house was paid off, Caligiuri says. While this ritual may sound strange to us now, the celebration was meant to be a tangible reminder of their accomplishment and of their liberation from debt. In other words, it was cathartic, and today, “gamified” tools can can help lead people to the same kind of satisfaction of being on top of their financial lives. Here’s a rundown on a few of them you might want to download. Because we all need something else to focus on besides Starbucks for Life.
- The Long Game. Honestly, I’ve been kind of blown away by this app. The games are not only addictively fun, they’re literally giving free money away—real money—in the form of cash prizes and crypto. The only requirement is that users open an interest-bearing savings account, which is held in partnership with the Blue Ridge Bank of Virginia. Once you open your savings account, you can link it to whatever checking account you currently use. Once you’re ready to play, you’ll be enticed to achieve personalized “financial missions” and hit savings targets, and when you do, you’ll be rewarded with tokens for in-app game play. When you play the games, most users will win 50 cents here and there, but some prizes are much bigger. Best of all? Your account is FDIC-insured, and all your money—including any winnings—can be withdrawn at any time.
- Qapital. Qapital’s motto is “Save small. Live large.” The app encourages users to save whatever they can, whenever they can, and offers helpful visualization techniques to help you prioritize your goals. For example, if that trip to Paris you’re saving up for seems super far away (and super expensive), Qapital asks you to set an inspiring background—like an Eiffel Tower— in order to keep your goals top of mind. The app also encourages saving by assigning users “missions” that they must accomplish, such as “Put one thing back” from your cart, or “Turn daily habits into weekly treats.” All Qapital accounts are FDIC-insured and come with a Qapital Visa Card and direct deposit. The company says it’s on a mission to help people connect their saving to their spending—after all, the dollars you don’t spend are dollars you can save. If gamifying makes that easier for some of us to understand, then count me in to play all day.
- Digit. If you’re eager to save money but worried about moving the right amount over into savings every month, Digit can help. This app analyzes your spending and automatically saves the ideal amount for you, based on your budget and preferences. Best of all, the app notifies you whenever you’ve accomplished a goal, or when you do something good, like paying a credit card bill. These notifications may help you feel like you’re racking up small “wins” along the way, and inspire you to save more. Additionally, if you tell Digit about your savings goals—whether it’s a new pair of shoes, or a new house—the app will help guide you there, and offer plenty of positive reinforcement along the way.
Lastly, no matter what apps or games you’re using, it’s time to take a hard look at where you store your credit cards, Ward says. Many devices and games have anesthetized the purchasing process by encouraging you to maintain a credit card on file, for instant, often thoughtless use. “What if we removed a card or two from some of our gaming accounts or apps?” Ward asks. “What if we re-installed the pain point for each purchase we might want to make? This would force us to stop and think more carefully about some of our buying decisions.”
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