Playing the Money Game

It’s amazing how much time and energy people waste stressing over money, reacting to financial setbacks as if money is life itself.

For my son Kyle’s 5th birthday earlier this month, he received the board game Trouble as one of his gifts. The game involves mostly luck plus a small amount of skill (easy enough for a child to grasp).

Our family has played this game together several times so far — we often play games together after dinner. Erin plays the game fairly calmly, but my eight-year old daughter Emily and I totally ham it up when we play — screaming for certain die rolls to come up, giving each other high fives after dealing the leader a setback, verbally strategizing as if we can control the odds, and laughing uproariously.

Kyle, however, takes the game far more seriously. When he’s in the lead and one of his pieces gets knocked back to the starting position (a common setback in the game), he may get so upset he can barely continue playing. Even when he wins a game, he’s reticent to play again. We try to explain to him that it’s just a game (and mostly blind luck at that), but he hasn’t yet reached the level of maturity where he can grasp that kind of abstraction. He gets so attached to his pieces that any kind of setback is seen as a personal blow.

Interestingly, Kyle has actually won more games than Emily and I have. But he doesn’t enjoy his victories as much as Emily and I enjoy our defeats. The game seems to be a fairly stressful experience for him. When he wins, his happiness is very brief, and he seems to dread it when we say, “Let’s play again.” Now he still seems to enjoy playing the game — we certainly don’t force him to play — but his attachment makes it more stressful than fun for him.

On the other hand, Emily and I have so much fun when we play that you’d never know if one of us was winning or losing. Every minor gain leads to outlandish celebration. You’d think we just won the lottery each time we captured a piece. Because we don’t take the game personally, we enjoy it a lot more.

Of course this is a metaphor for how people relate to their finances. Many people play the game like Kyle plays Trouble, feeling stressed and worried because there’s this underlying fear of loss. A significant financial setback is seen as a serious personal blow. Even financial victories can’t be enjoyed much because the next setback could come at any time. Any uncertainties serve to increase the stress and worry, which leads to the desire to clench down really hard and try to control every known factor, to avoid any potential risk. Another possible reaction is to check out from the game entirely and refuse to play (except as absolutely necessary), lamenting the great unfairness of it all.

How would you react to a player who played Trouble like this? If it’s a young child, no big deal, right? He’ll outgrow that phase soon enough. But what about a grown adult who plays this way? What advice would you give such a person? How about, “Chill out, dude… it’s just a game. Don’t take it so seriously.”

What’s the point of playing the game Trouble? Is it to win? No. The point is to enjoy the experience and have fun.

What’s the point of playing the money game? Is it to amass a fortune? Of course not. You’re going to lose it all when you die anyway. The point is to enjoy the experience, have fun, and grow from it. The money game isn’t your enemy. It’s your teacher.

Just as Kyle needs to learn not to take the game Trouble so seriously, many people need to learn not to stress out over the money game. If you lose all your money, sure it stings a little, but it really isn’t the end of the world. There’s always another opportunity to get back in the game. Going broke or bankrupt isn’t a death sentence.

Nine years ago Erin and I lost a round of the money game. We got kicked out of our apartment, went bankrupt, and had to start over from scratch with almost zero cash and minimal income. But guess what… we’re still playing the game, having fun, and learning from it. Those early losses simply helped us become better players. Isn’t this a better approach than whining about the loss and saying, “That’s not fair! I’m never playing this stupid game again!”

Don’t blame the money game if you’re a bad player. It’s not the game’s fault if you suck at playing. Don’t blame the other players either, especially the ones you perceive as more skillful or more lucky than you.

In terms of being able to win equally, the money game may not seem particularly fair. That’s irrelevant though because winning isn’t the point. This isn’t a game that can be won with any sense of finality anyway. However, in terms of the opportunity for growth, the money game is very fair. If you play full out, you will undoubtedly grow from it.

It’s much more fun to play the money game like Emily and I play Trouble. We keep ourselves in a fun, light-hearted state, so no matter what happens, we enjoy it. Even though the game is supposed to be competitive, we celebrate each other’s victories. We’ll even celebrate Kyle’s victories to help encourage him.

Although Trouble is mostly luck, skill plays a much bigger factor in the real life money game. If you play the money game scared, you’ll tend to do very poorly. If you’re worried about losing your pieces (i.e. your money), you’ll play the game way too tight. But if you see it as a fun game, you’ll loosen up, and you’ll feel more comfortable playing in a larger field.

Money needn’t be a stressful or worrisome part of your life if you treat the money game as a fun growth experience. If you don’t take your financial life so seriously, you can learn to enjoy the process of shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. There’s no mandate that says you must stress yourself out about money, regardless of your current financial situation.

Even though real life may seem more serious than a game of Trouble, you can still laugh in the face of defeat and enjoy the game regardless of circumstances.

Play the money game for fun and growth, including the fun and growth of the other players. Don’t stress over whether you think you’re winning or losing. The more important question is: Are you growing?