It is the rare bird among us who is super motivated to save a dollar today rather than spend it. Figuring out a budget that makes it a breeze to pay the bills and consistently funnel money into retirement accounts is not screaming fun times.
That's where gamification comes into play. A growing number of financial apps now feature colorful and engaging bells and whistles that add rewards or an element of fun — or an element of personal competition (your progress toward goals you've set) — as ways to help users stick to personal-finance chores. That you can check in on all this via your smartphone creates compelling ease of use.
Gamification of investing, however, can be compelling in a negative way, creating incentives to trade and take other risks when we know "buy and hold" is the smart strategy.
Knowing the difference between helpful and potentially hurtful gamification apps is a necessary part of building financial security in the 21st century.
Here is how to leverage gamification to your advantage for dealing with basic needs and where to be on the lookout for gamification nudges that might lead you astray.
Apps that help you start — and stay committed to — saving more money and spending less are a win. Engaging pie charts and progress bar charts can help us stay committed.
Some apps wrap a basic financial chore in a gamelike setting. Fortune City is a budgeting app disguised as a game that allows users to track their spending and expenses to build their dream city. The Long Game rewards users who shovel money into an FDIC-insured savings account with coins that enable them to play online games that dole out cash prizes.
The Acorns and Qapital apps use a more subtle form of gamification. Each has a "round up" feature that rounds up every purchase to the nearest dollar and deposits that "extra" money in an investing or savings account. Logging in and seeing those accounts growing with no discernible effort is a literal reward in itself. The same concept is at play in budgeting apps such as Mint, where you can constantly track your saving and spending progress.
Are you the type who likely needs a kick in the pants to stick to a goal? Stickk.com nudges you along with a self-created incentive. You can choose to send money to a friend if you reach your goal, or hand the money over to someone (or a charity) you really don't like if you fall short. It is up to you to decide if you like the carrot or the stick approach. You can also assign friend or foe to be your "referee" who checks in to make sure you're following your own preset rules.
Even the "good" gamification apps can encourage less-than-great behavior. For example, if you sign up for a Long Game debit card, every $40 you spend earns you more prizes. The good news is that it's a debit card and not a credit card that can snowball into having expensive debt. But it is nonetheless an implicit nudge to spend.
Rewards credit cards are one of the oldest forms of gamification in consumer finance. The more you spend, the more points, miles or cash back you earn. That is not necessarily a win. If you pay a hefty annual fee and then also carry an unpaid balance that charges you 16 to 20% or more interest, you are sort of playing into the card issuer's hands. If the rewards programs didn't ultimately make money for card issuers, do you think they would be so eager to offer 'em up?
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