My husband, Zach, is a hardcore video game nerd.
I, in fact, am not. I get more joy out of tracking our financial progress than in blasting away aliens on a TV screen. #NerdAlert
This got me thinking, though: why can’t personal finance be played like a game? And if it was a game, what would the levels be? What level would I be on?
Wonder no longer. This is how my version of a personal finance video game would work, complete with all of the levels, achievements needed to reach each level, and optional power-ups.
Level 1: The n00b
Ah, the n00b (not to be confused with boob). The personal finance n00b isn’t misinformed or lazy; they’ve just never been taught about the basics of how to manage your money. Here are some signs you’re a personal finance n00b:
- You are living paycheck-to-paycheck
- You charged a big-screen TV to your credit card…and can’t immediately pay it off
- You have loans on both of your cars
- You think compound interest is something cult members are into
- What is an emergency fund?
In the game of personal finance, you start out life with a roll of the dice.
Did your parents tell you that you’d only find success in college, even though they can’t pay for it and it’s outrageously expensive now? Bam. Student loans. Couldn’t afford student loans, or no inclination for college? Bam. No college degree. Did your overactive hormones spring forth a premature loin fruit in high school? Bam. Child support.
Sadly, this is probably the default starting level for 43% of the U.S. population that is considered financially illiterate. It’s sure as hell where I started.
Level 2: The Hobbit
The personal finance hobbit has come to realize that things need to change. They become acutely aware of their own lack of knowledge, and begin to seek it out.
Personal finance hobbits are on an insatiable quest for knowledge. They won’t stop until they’ve been on an adventure, even though their friends might not want to go with them.
They start to look in the following places:
- Personal finance blogs (hi, there!)
- Classes and seminars
- Facebook groups
If you’re in this stage, good news! It ain’t rocket science. It sure as hell isn’t anything compared to grad school. You can learn the basics within a couple of hours. Everything else after that is just fine-tuning the blueprints for a smooth-running machine.
Level 3: The Mermaid
Mermaids spend most of their lives underwater. Still, they’re able to come above the water and breath fresh air, although they’re a bit ungainly and awkward on land.
The personal finance mermaid has finally broken out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle by saving up one month’s worth of expenses. They’re finally out from being underwater. They can begin each new month with all the money they’ll need to get to the end and don’t have to worry about scrambling to pay rent or other bills.
Personal finance mermaids finally can start focusing on long-term goals. Still, they’ve got a lot of evolving and changing to do before they can expect to collect enough points to reach the higher levels.
Level 4: The Squirrel
The squirrel has managed to hoard away some extra cash for a rainy day in a tree (or, perhaps a better idea, a savings account).
Related post: How big should my emergency fund be?
Now they’ve got some breathing room from being out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and some extra savings so they’re not SOL if some asshole weasel comes along and steals all their nuts or busts up their home.
Level 5: Kvothe
If you haven’t read The Kingkiller Chronicles and you’re a fantasy fiction fan, what are you doing. Stop reading this right now, find a copy, and read it. It’s like a cross between Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, but better.
Anyways. Kvothe is the hero from the series, and as a poor student of the elite magic college, he’s got a bad student loan problem. He owes his money to the equivalent of a payday loan lender, who literally requires blood as a collateral and charges a 300% APR interest rate. But, with hard work and a lot of side hustlin’ as a lute player in the tavern, he’s able to pay off his debts.
This is where we find out personal finance Kvothes. They’ve hustled and hurried, sacrificed and scrimped (sometimes with their own blood), and spent every last cent towards paying off their consumer debt so they aren’t beholden to any crazy creditors. Because fuck crazy creditors. We’ve got our own lives to live.
Level 6: The Dwarf
At this point you might think you’re set, right? You’ve got your debts paid off and a small savings cushion to protect you from marauding dragons?
Think again. You need to dig in to a fortress so that you can hoard your cash in a safe place.
The personal finance dwarf has managed this feat. They’ve managed to save up a fully-stocked emergency fund. Its size depends on their needs; a young dwarf living at home with mom and dad doesn’t need as big an emergency fund as a large family where the breadwinning dwarves have tenuous job situations.
Maybe the personal finance dwarf has just three month’s expenses saved up. Maybe an entire year. In any case, they’re fully protected, barring any crazy apocalyptic events like an invasion from Smaug.
Level 7: The Climber
The climber has a safe stash o’ cash at home and so can take risks. They can shovel mass amounts of money into the stock market and still be fine if it tanks. They can climb the mountain of net worth without worrying about anyone pantsing them.
The personal finance climber not only has a fully-stocked emergency fund, but they also have enough retirement funds in savings (based on their current age) so that they can quit working at a normal retirement age.
Level 8: The Leprechaun
The leprechaun really has reached the pot at the end o’ the rainbow. They’ve managed to save enough for retirement, factoring in all the little things like pensions and social security.
Maybe it won’t be a comfortable retirement. They might not be able to jetset across the world like they’d hoped when they were younger. But, it’s still a retirement nonetheless.
Level 9: Tyrion Lannister
Plain ol’ retirement is fine. But what if you have enough money that you can live off of the interest alone in (almost) perpetuity, and not be limited in doing the things you want in retirement? If you had such a pot of money, you’d never need to worry about the whims of social security or whatever shenanigan government programs the politicians cook up or take away. You could withdraw your money, and it’d grow right back again, like a magic money tree!
This is where the personal finance Tyrion Lannister is at. They’ve managed to save 25 times their annual expenses in the stock market. According to the magic 4% rule, this is how much you need to have saved to live off of the interest alone.
Besides, Tyrion Lannister’s got better things to worry about than working for a living—like drinking, reading, and women (only two of which I am personally interested in).
Level 10: Gandalf
You know what Gandalf doesn’t have to worry about? Gandalf ain’t gotta worry about shit from a money perspective. He’s got better things to do, like saving the world and leading adventures.
Personal finance Gandalfs are indeed accomplished wizards in their own rights. They’ve given a stiff upper lip and a flying middle finger to the norms of modern-day consumer spending. As a result, they’ve done things that most of us will never achieve. This truly is the most advanced level.
Personal finance Gandalfs (Gandalfi?) manage to save up 30 times their annual expenses or more. With this amount, they can live for the rest of their life without worrying about money even a smidge, as long as they don’t go crazy and start buying Learjets and football teams.
There are many things you can do at any of these levels to give yourself a personal finance points boost. With extra personal finance points, you can launch yourself into the next level even faster.
Paying off your mortgage is an awesome power-up that’ll reduce your expenses in the long run, and save you a metric shit-ton in interest charges. This’ll be especially helpful when you’re working to build your retirement nest egg, because it’ll reduce the total amount you need to save up.
Developing passive income streams is another great thing that’ll give your finances a leg up. This basically involves setting up systems in place that’ll keep paying you, even with little or no input from you. It’s decoupling the time-for-dollars problem that traditional employment has. Popular passive income streams come from rental real estate, stock market investing, book royalties, etc…
While donating to charity will take money away from you, it’s still a great thing to do. This might delay your progression through the levels if you do it too early, which is why I think it’s better to wait until you’re at least out of Level 5 (Kvothe; paid-off debt) before you start to seriously think about philanthropy.
Finally, travel hacking is an excellent power-up for wanderers and adventurers. If you have a good credit score, you can earn thousands of dollars’ worth in free travel by using credit cards smartly. To learn more about travel hacking, I recommend Brad Barrett and Alexi Zemsky’s free Travel Miles 101 email course—that’s what taught me everything I needed to know.
So…What Level Would You Be?
Whew! There you have it; the Personal Finance video game, complete with level guides and power-ups.
Are you still wondering what level I’m at? Right now we’re still at a Level 3 (Mermaid). We’ve broken out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle a couple of years ago, and are now working to save up a three-month emergency fund. Once we manage that, we’ll be at Level 4 (squirrel!).
It’s been slow going and we’ve been stuck at Level 3 for a while now because we’ve had to deal with several setbacks. We had to give up our home in a deed-in-lieu-of-foreclosure, I lost my biology job with the fed government when the new administration came in, and Zach’s still in college. We’ll get there eventually though!
What level are you at? Do you know of any other hacks or power-ups? Leave a comment below!