Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Impressions of Dave Ramsey’s “Act Your Wage” board game.

Only available via his online store, Dave Ramsey and his crew have produced a board game for 2 to 4 people, ages 10 and up. I ordered it recently, and finally got a chance to play two games this week.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dave Ramsey, he’s a Christian financial type with a strong focus on getting a plan for your money, getting out of debt, and living on less than you make. Right now his most popular book is The Total Money Makeover, and some AM stations will carry his radio talk show.
So, what do I think of it?

Opening the box.

I found the quality of the contents to be rather good. The board is nice and thick, feeling firm and heavy. The game pieces for the players are standard plasticy bits, nothing special. I was rather surprised that the play money was printed on both sides rather than just one! A small detail, to be sure, but one I appreciate. The other game cards feel good, and are printed on a nice, glossy stock. My only complaint with them is that the Save, Spend and Give cards have the same basic design on the top – I would’ve preferred to different colors or something to make it easier to differentiate between them, but overall its more a quibble than anything else.

What it is.

The game, more than anything else, is a teaching tool for Dave’s first two Baby Steps which are to get a $1000 emergency fund and then to begin paying off your debts, snowball-style. The goal of the game is to be the first person to become debt-free.

Now, part of doing both of those is having a budget, and on each side of the board you’ll fine spots to place you money in various categories (emergency fund, food, utilities, rent/mortgage, savings). In each corner of the board is a payday/bill due square, which also serves as your starting points. You pay the designated bill first, then you receive your pay (each corner square represents a week).

As you move about the board, you’ll find that there are spaces marked Save, Spend, Give and Dave Says, plus spaces with specific instructions. When you land on a space, you follow the instructions given or read the corresponding card.
  • Save cards have you saving (collecting) money from the bank.
  • Spend cards have you spending money, giving it to the bank.
  • Give cards have you giving the amount to each of the other players.
  • Dave Says cards can have you either saving (collecting) or spending money.
As said earlier, the goal of the game is to become the first person to get out of debt. When you start, you pick a Life card, which will have your career, family (single? married? kids or no kids?), salary, weekly pay and your various expenses. You’ll also pick up three Debt cards which show how much debt you’ve got to pay off to win.

What its not.

Act Your Wage is not the ideal counter-balance to Richard Kiyosaki’s Cashflow. If anything, I would say Act Your Wage doesn’t have nearly as much meat to it as Cashflow does, but that’s not to say its bad.
Cashflow emphasizes finding ways to earn more money to achieve your goals; to get out of the Rat Race and live your dream. To retire early and wealthy. When I’ve played it in the past other players would look at me funny when I’d try paying off my debts in order to reduce my overall expenses. That, in turn, would make it easier for me to achieve the goal of having a passive income exceeding my expenses. Typically, the other players would focus on trying to get as much income as possible and ignore their accumulated debt.
In Cashflow I found a wealth of options, of choices. How did I want to invest my money? Did I want to invest in real estate? A business? Collectibles speculation? Stocks? Big deals? Small deals? If I didn’t have enough money, I could take a loan out. If an opportunity to sell came up, did I want to sell at a profit in order to move onto bigger investments? Or keep the passive income? There was a lot to think about, and enough wiggle-room for some personal style to come out.

In Act Your Wage there’s far less to consider. The only two things you can really control is asset allocation for paying bills (“Well, I’ve only got $500, my rent is $600, but that’s two paydays away, so I’ll put this into food first…”), and how much of a buffer you wanted to keep in your savings. That turned out to be a rather important factor for me – because you’ve got no idea how the "week” would turn out, I found it preferable to have an extra $1000-2000 set aside on top of my savings towards paying off debt. The luck of the roll figured in more than I would’ve liked.

What I did and didn’t like.

As mentioned, I feel luck figures in more than it ought to. I believe this was a design decision more than anything, with the idea being if you keep plugging away you will eventually get everything paid off. It’s a matter more of perseverance than anything else. I think the assumption is the Spend cards are temporary setbacks rather than reverting back to your old lifestyle that you back into debt to begin with. As such, its hopeful – just keep plugging away at the plan and you will make it. But because of that, it makes the game more shallow than I think adult players would really like.

Another assumption is that the player is indeed working with a budget. In fact, the game works around this idea. Its highly simplified – while your normal living expenses have due dates around the board, your student loan, car loan, credit card balances, etc., are only paid off in a single lump sum. After pay your expenses you’ve got money left over to save with. While this is okay for younger players, I think older players (particularly teens) would benefit from having those being regular expenses until they’re paid off.

Your income level compared to debt makes more of a difference than it should, also. In our games, most of the debts can be paid off very quickly if you have a higher income level and aren’t too unlucky. This is a big advantage given that everyone receives three Debt cards, regardless of income. If you go by what the authors of The Millionaire Next Door have to say, most people spend as much, or more, than they make. I feel Act Your Wage would be a little more fair if the number of debt cards you draw is dependent on your income – somebody with a high income will have an easier time getting credit, approved for loans, etc., and thus can rack up more debt than someone of a more modest income level.

Due to the simplicity of the game, the rules are relatively brief, and can be learned quickly. One omission that was noticed was there is no mention of how to proceed should you run out of money completely and are unable to pay your bills (ie, you’ve exhausted all your money and emergency fund). While we have not run into that ourselves, it seems like it would be a possibility should one have a streak of bad luck and worse timing.

We considered using that to create a new debt – after all, bills don’t go away, even when late – but we’ll have to try that next time.

I also believe that a list of suggested questions for discussion might have been useful. When we played I and my friend asked her daughters questions, but it would’ve been good to have some there from the get go. What made me very, very happy with my purchase of the game was after our first play-through, my friend’s daughter began asking her questions about money, how her dentist appointment was paid for, etcetera. She noted that her daughter had a better idea that her paycheck had places to go, things to do, and there was a reason why they couldn’t go and get treats all the time.

For a game designed to help teach budgeting, I think that’s a mark of success.

Current recommendation?

I think that Act Your Wage is a good game to play with children. Its easy to learn, and while chance driven, they can get an idea that there are ups and downs financially, as well as surprises both good and bad. In our case it led to talking about money, and will hopefully lead to more discussions in the future.

For adults, on the other hand, I don’t see it being as useful. The simplicity of the game’s design makes the game too simple, too random, and too limited in scope for grown-ups or likely teens. I think its good for a parent who is wanting to use it as a teaching tool, to play alongside with children, but that’s about it for now. I believe that Dave Ramsey would do well to commission an “Advanced” expansion for the game for older players or creating a more comprehensive version that through all of his Baby Steps.

UPDATE: It was suggested to me that people who've never really done a budget before would benefit from it. I had to think about that for a minute before realizing, yeah, that's right. That was me when I was younger. More than that, there's a difference between budgeting check to check to get by and budgeting to get ahead, which is really what you're trying to do (although, again, its assumed) in Act Your Wage.

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