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Making Budgeting Fun

Last week, we talked about finding the budgeting routine that will work for you. But that’s a little like finding the flossing routine that will work for you. The routine that fits in with your habits and preferences may be easier to adopt, but that doesn’t make it fun.


And before you tell me that “budget” and “fun” are a contradiction in terms, just recall the wisdom of Mary Poppins. Just a spoonful of sugar helps the budgeting go down.


Just a spoon full of sugar...

That’s because using extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can help you make your money tasks a highlight of your week. Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal or personal satisfaction you might feel for completing a task, while extrinsic motivation is the reward something else gives you for completing a task.


For instance, you might spend an afternoon playing Clue, both because of the game’s extrinsic motivation of rewarding you for solving a mystery, and because of your intrinsic motivation to have some fun with your friends. Arranging for extrinsic motivators to keep you on the straight-and-narrow of money management can help make the task of handling your money an intrinsic reward.


Here are three ways to use extrinsic motivation to help your budget become a beloved habit:


Turn Your Money Management into Art


One of the reasons why bullet journaling has become so popular is what it has done for the aesthetic of making to-do lists. Rather than having crossed out items written on random scraps of paper or even spread haphazardly throughout a diary or journal, bujo enthusiasts have an organizational system that doubles as a living work of art. They enjoy the extrinsic motivation of creating a beautiful journal, which helps make organization for its own sake become an intrinsic motivator.


Creating art is also an inherently mindful act. When you are focused on the process and sensation of watching lines, colors, and shapes appear, you are pulled into the moment. That sensation of being at one with the process of creating art can help you to both enjoy and be more mindful of your finances. And bringing such an artistic mindfulness to your money management can help you to look forward to working on your money every week.


A vision board for money management

There are a number of ways you can turn your money management into art:


  • Decorate or color code your cash envelopes.

  • Create a picture that you color in as you master your money. For instance, you could draw a tree with leaves that represent your debt. For every $100 you pay off on your debt, you could color in a leaf until you have a beautiful record of your financial success.

  • Make an on-going vision board. Draw or cut out pictures of what you envision your life will look like once you have mastered money management. Add details to your vision board each week as part of your weekly money tasks.

  • Use colored pens, markers, or calligraphy in your handwritten ledger.

  • Color code your Excel or Google Sheets document to make it something visually stimulating to work on.

Having my spending categories in rainbow order makes me smile every time I open my budgeting spreadsheet

Gamify Your Money


Games offer both types of motivation to keep you playing. You intrinsically want to beat the next level, and the game gives you an extrinsic reward or boost for doing so. You can use that model to make money management a game:

1. Choose the Levels in Your Game


You don’t face the final boss when you first start a video game. Instead, games are designed with achievable levels that start easy and get harder. This makes it fun to progress and doesn’t bog you down with the sensation that you’ll never reach the end. As your abilities increase, the levels become more challenging.


Creating a “money management game” for yourself should have a similar structure. Start by setting your big financial goal for yourself. Then you can begin to figure what little steps will take you there.

Let’s say you want to max out your 401(k) contribution. Your first level on your “game” might be sending an extra $100 to your retirement account this month. An extra Benjamin a month is achievable but feels like an accomplishment, which makes it a good first level.


Set your financial goal and level up

From there, you might make the next levels when your balance has gone up by $500, and then $1,000, then $2,000, and so on. Once you've saved $5,000 toward retirement, make your levels a little further apart, so they occur every time you’ve saved another $2,500 or $5,000.


2. Create a Game Visual


When my husband and I were working on paying off debt, we created a “money thermometer” to color in as we reached the next level of payoff. Thermometers are a popular way to track your progress because they’re easy to draw (although they may end up looking a little phallic, depending on your drawing skills), and they make for a motivating visual representation of your progress.


But there are plenty of different ways to create a game visual. Creating a Tetris board that you color in is another option, as is creating a game board with each square or step representing another level in your money management game. Whatever type of image that is most likely to motivate you can make for a great game visual and will keep you interested in continuing the “game” after you would normally get tired of working on your budget.

3. Decide on Your Extrinsic Motivations for Each Level


Now it’s time to figure out how you can reward yourself for reaching the levels you have chosen for your money management game. In time, you can expect to feel great just for reaching these levels. But starting off, it's a good idea to also build in the extrinsic motivations because they can help you stay on track with your budgeting.


This is where you brainstorm ways to reward yourself for reaching the various levels you've chosen in your game, without spending money. Since you are working to make better financial choices, you want to find rewards that cost nothing (or very little) but still feel celebratory.


If you are drawing a blank on what kinds of “level up” rewards to put on your money management game, write down the following sentence, and come up with as many responses as you can (no less than 10). Don’t restrict yourself to free rewards, either. Just brainstorm the things that sound fun to you:


It will make me so excited to _____________________


Once you have finished brainstorming, identify the option that seems most exciting to you. Perhaps you wrote “travel to Florence with my best friend.” Now that you know that this is something that really excites you, you can start finding creative ways to recreate the feeling that you want from a Florentine vacation. Bringing a mindful attitude toward the things that excite you most can help you find free or inexpensive alternatives.




Uffizi at night

For instance, you and your best friend could tour a local museum together to recreate the experience of seeing the Uffizi. That could be your first “level up” reward. For your next reward, you might find a local gelato shop and enjoy a scoop of fior di latte. From there, you could plan a walking tour of your city that ends at a café or a gorgeous panoramic view. Not only will these excursions be fun on their own, but they will also help you strengthen your determination to reach the next.


Partner with a Friend


Just as exercise is more fun with friends, so is money management. Working with a partner (or even a team) can make your weekly money management more like a social occasion rather than a chore. You can enjoy the extrinsic motivation of spending time with your friend as you work on your finances.


If your money partner is local, you could schedule a weekly in-person date where one of you brings snacks and other brings beverages, and you both sit down to handle your financial chores. When you are done, you can enjoy time with your friend, with both of you feeling good about having your money under control.


Even if you and your money partner are not in the same zip code, you could still have virtual “dates” for handling your financial management. Set aside a specific time, create a shared playlist to listen to at the same time, and open a chat program so you can comment back and forth as you each reconcile your accounts. Celebrate finishing your financial chores with a Skype call.


In addition to the extrinsic motivation of spending time together, partnering with a friend can also help you come up with ways to keep your motivation high. You and your money partner can determine ahead of time how you will celebrate your small victories, and you can remind each other of those upcoming celebrations when you are feeling discouraged.



Working with a partner can also help you remain mindful about both your financial decisions and your progress. If you know that you will be talking your budget buddy about the choices you make, you may pause before making a decision you wouldn’t be proud to share. Knowing that another person will hear about your choices can be a powerful way of paying attention to what you really want.


In addition, having a partner around can remind you of the importance of contextualizing your choices and mistakes. You won’t let your friend beat himself up for overspending in the week after a breakup, which will remind you to be just as compassionate to yourself. Your open-hearted attitude toward your friend can help you remember to be just as open-hearted toward yourself when things aren’t going perfectly.


Budgeting Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore


“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”


You find the fun and snap!

This is even true of traditionally tedious tasks like money management. Finding a way to make your budgeting time something you look forward to is simply a matter of creating enough extrinsic motivation to appeal to you until the intrinsic motivation kicks in—in the most delightful way.

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Milwaukee, WI

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© 2020 by Emily Guy Birken