5 Things Play Teaches You About Personal Finance

I don't know anyone who can't wax poetic about playing as a child. Even my friends who had difficult childhoods remember playing, somewhere and with somebody, with fondness.

There's something about remembering our childhood games, whether they were pickup games of baseball in the middle of the street or tag or imagining we were pirates deep in the woods, that makes us happy. Even as adults, with jobs and responsibilities and families and so much to do, we relish the hours that we can spend resting, relaxing, and enjoying our hobbies — also known as playing. That's because play is important. (See also: 11 Fun Games That Make You smarter, Too)

Whether you are child or adult, play brings joy. It makes us excited and happy. And it all makes me wonder: What if we could bring even a little bit of that joy into tasks that can seem difficult or frustrating, like managing our personal finances? Could even these things become more like games?

Try some of these ideas and let me know what you think!

1. Play Is Practice

More than anything else, play seems to be practice for life. The thing is, little kids don't like to practice. In fact, most of them don't have the focus to be able to practice in the same ways adults can. So they play. They play house, they play fireman, they play mommy and daddy and teacher. And in doing this, they learn about taking on different roles, conflict resolution, and so much more. Their practice prepares them for real life.

As adults, we can remember that practice is at least as important as studying a topic. While there's nothing wrong with researching what investments to make next, we might find ourselves more engaged if we actually jump in and practice. Trade with fake money or create sample budgets based on different salaries, to figure out how to make things work for you in real life.

2. Play Is Fun

As adults, we make personal finance into work. We get serious about the budget, or study hard to determine how to invest our money. We feel like we need to buckle down and get serious about our finances. Again, there's nothing wrong with this, but what if we could make the whole process less painful?

Try setting aside some money for "fun investing," or make budgeting a game by coming up with creative ways to spend less in different categories.

3. Play Promotes Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking means thinking outside the box of what is, or in many cases, what seems to be. People who are good at thinking counterfactually are the ones who, when solving a problem, ask us to reexamine our assumptions, rather than just suggesting new ways to work within them. This sort of thinking can offer huge benefits in so many areas, because we often make assumptions that aren't true, or that aren't necessary. And pretend play seems to help children improve their counterfactual thinking.

Most adults would be embarrassed to be caught pretending. We can, though, pretend within a certain context. I have an example of this from my own recent history. For a long time, my husband and I assumed that we could not afford grass-fed beef, even though avoiding antibiotics and hormones is important to us. Recently, though, we researched different ways to purchase this meat, and found that, if we buy wholesale rather than from a store, it's much more affordable. We had assumed we'd be buying from Whole Foods or Costco, but now we're purchasing direct from a rancher.

To learn to examine your assumptions, or "pretend" in the context of your own finances, start by writing down your assumptions. For instance, you might assume that you don't have enough money for something, or that you have to keep a certain percentage of your assets invested in stocks, or that there's not another method for buying something. Then ask around and do some research to see if your assumptions are, in fact, correct.

4. Play Is Social

When kids play, they are learning social skills. Even when they are not playing with other kids, play itself seems to help the brain socially, so that those who play function better socially than those who do not. And adults seem to play in order to enhance their social interactions, to build community and find friends who they can connect with on a deep level.

We can reclaim our sense of play in personal finance by making aspects of our financial life social. If you live with roommates or a significant other, make sure you are both involved in budgeting. Even set aside some time to enjoy a meal together and go over finances in a less stressful environment. You could also start an investment club or, at least, talk through some of your financial questions with trusted friends or family members. All of this is likely to make finance more enjoyable, more like play and less like work.

5. Play Encourages Self-Regulation

The more kids play and the higher the maturity level of their pretend play, the more they learn to regulate themselves. Self-regulation touches on many aspects of life — we should be able to regulate ourselves emotionally, to keep desires (even strong desires) in check, and to make choices focused on long-term benefit rather than short-term pleasure.

Self-regulation seems to tie naturally to personal finance. Most of us want to be able to resist spending money when we don't have money to spend or when we are saving our money for something else. We also want to be able to leave our investments alone if we believe the investment is a sound one, even when the market is fluctuating and we feel unsure.

Again, it will help us to "pretend" in the context of our finances. If we are tempted to make a purchase that we really shouldn't make right now, we can envision how we will feel in two days (or even two hours!) if we make the purchase, and then again if we don't. If we are trying to leave an investment where it is, we can imagine ourselves using the money in 30 years, happy that we left it where it was.

What do you do to make personal finance more like play? Does that help keep you on track financially?

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Guest's picture

I like the idea of setting aside some fun money for investing. That's essentially what we're doing - we set aside some money to buy stocks and see how it goes! It's money we can afford to lose and it's been fun learning by doing!

Guest's picture

Excellent article. I think as adults we underestimate how critical play is in developing children's concepts of money management. Teaching children early how to manage money is fundamental.

Your comments about thinking outside of the box are very key to problem solving money management issues in the future as an adult. :)

Guest's picture

Play is the building blocks for our kids. We just need to ensure they learn real lessons along the way.

Your kids are really only as good as the time as you put into them.

I've got my kids splitting their money, into 3 jars. Saving - Spending - Donating

Hopefully, I can teach them to be generous as well as thrifty.