Need help with money? Play a game.

New online games help players with money by making personal finance fun. 'Financial Football' teaches basic money concepts. 'SaveUp' helps members with money by rewarding them for saving.

Mary Altaffer/AP/File
Dollar bills are on display at the Diversified table during a job fair in New York in this 2010 file photo, part of a giveaway to attract sales representatives. Online games promise to offer help with your money by teaching concepts of personal finance.

What if digging out of debt were as easy as playing an online game?

That's the goal of a new crop of personal finance applications, including Financial Football and SaveUp. The gamemakers hope that by playing the games, people will learn good personal finance habits that will translate to the real world.

Financial Football is an online video game wherein success on the football field depends on the player's knowledge of basic money concepts – think the "Madden" video game series combined with a personal finance quiz. A joint project of Visa and the National Football League, it has different age levels: 11 to 14, 14 to 18, and 18-plus.

SaveUp takes a more comprehensive approach. The San Francisco-based start-up asks consumers to sign up (free of charge) on its website, then lets them link their financial accounts and obligations – from checking to college and car loans. The software helps them track their financial activity.

The motivational key to the program is the prizes that members can earn. For the money they save, they earn points that they can either redeem for rewards or use to enter raffles for prizes that run the gamut from Starbucks gift cards to a $2 million jackpot. (No actual money is in play.)

"It's like dieting," says Priya Haji, who co-founded SaveUp with gaming software developer Sammy Shreibati. "When [results] are incremental it's hard to stay motivated. [But] the small chance that something life-changing can happen at any time is very motivating."

SaveUp won't release its member numbers, but a ticker on the site boasts that users have saved more than $150 million so far, and paid down more than $130 million in debt.

The idea is to develop good behaviors through repetition and positive reinforcement – similar to how video games promote certain strategy and motor skills. It's an attempt to overcome a huge obstacle for the personal finance industry: getting people to keep coming back.

"Americans only look at their finances when they're worried about it, and not frequently outside of a reactive situation," Ms. Haji says.

Outside experts applaud the attempt to turn good practices into habits.

"One of the challenges of habits is developing consistent patterns so that you're doing it organically," says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the "Financially Fit" Web series on Yahoo! "Programs that are attached to your phone and have reminders built in promote regularity. That's definitely a plus."

Problems remain. Besides engagement, another challenge is appealing to a cross section of users. Older adults are reluctant to try the software. Low-income people, who might benefit the most, often don't have access to the basic financial structures key to tracking savings. "It's more of a middle- to upper-middle-class experience," Haji says.

Then there's the link between saving and prizes. SaveUp was in­spired, in part, by lottery-linked savings accounts that reward deposits with raffle tickets. The concept is popular in Britain but illegal in all but a few US states.

"What concerns me is the notion of nudging people, linking savings with gambling behavior," says Victor Ricciardi, a finance professor at Goucher College in Baltimore.

The gaming aspect can muddle motivation and, perversely, encourage risky behavior, agrees Ms. Torabi. "Part of me is a little cautious, especially with free prizes. People get too caught up on the freebie and forget about the journey."

Still, Mr. Ricciardi and Torabi say there is a value in the engagement these methods can drive, particularly with a younger generation raised on computers.

"I'm not sure it's the end-all for financial literacy education," says Torabi. "People who are really struggling with their money, living from paycheck to paycheck ... don't need games. These people need professional help. But if you aren't saving as much as you like, play around. Maybe it will help."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Need help with money? Play a game.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today