Could More Screen Time Give Your Kids a Financial Head Start?

October 7, 2020 Updated: October 19, 2020

Dear Readers: I have an unusual question for you: If your kids could learn about paying off a mortgage or controlling debt by playing a fantasy online game, would you give them a bit more screen time? How about fighting zombies and saving the world from aliens while making smart financial decisions? If you’re not a gamer, that probably sounds a bit crazy. But if you’ve heard about games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” or “Misadventures in Money Management,” you may know what I’m talking about. The recently released “Animal Crossing,” for example, is getting a lot of attention, and not just for the usual reasons. It actually teaches players about basic financial concepts in a way that kind of sneaks up on them as they get involved in buying and selling real estate and goods, building infrastructure—even investing.

Using games to teach money and finance isn’t new, but as video games become more sophisticated—and concern about screen time becomes more of an issue in households where everyone is sheltering in place—I think it could make sense for parents to turn what often is a battleground into an opportunity.

A Virtual Economy Can Teach Real-Life Lessons

Studies have suggested that playing video games can actually improve decision-making skills, memory, and strategic thinking. Take this a step further and it’s not hard to see how games that include sophisticated virtual economies can help players make better real-life financial decisions.

For instance, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” includes a market that makes the concept of buying low and selling high real as players use in-game, virtual currency to buy a particular commodity (in this case, turnips) at varying prices. The goal, of course, is to sell them at a higher price. But investing is only one financial activity. There are all types of lifelike transactions, from making mortgage payments to buying furniture to setting up a store—even saving in a bank that offers interest at changing rates to reflect current times.

Success in the game requires an understanding of supply and demand, smart spending, wise management of your game currency, and more. Does that sound like fun? Yes! Does it sound like life? Yes, again!

There Are Financial Literacy Games for All Ages

But you don’t have to rely on the latest video game craze to get your kids—or yourself—involved. Realizing the potential of games to bring financial literacy to life, nonprofit organizations like Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF) have developed several financial games to teach practical money skills to students. NGPF is just one of many. Here are a few more to explore:

  • The FINRA Investor Education Foundation created the “Con ’Em If You Can” game to teach middle school through college players how to recognize and defend against fraud. It also offers games directed at adults such as “Moneytopia,” which poses real-life financial situations people may face over a 40-year period.
  • “The Stock Market Game,” supported by SIFMA (Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association), gives high school students the chance to invest a hypothetical $100,000 portfolio.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers “Misadventures in Money Management,” a game particularly for military service members on how to avoid financial pitfalls.
  • The Council of Economic Education has partnered with the makers of “Minecraft: Education Edition” to help teachers show students how economic decisions make a positive or negative impact on their built environment.

And the list goes on. Whether you’re a football fan or a classic comic book lover, there’s a financially focused video game that will not only keep you engaged but also help you improve your financial skills.

A Lot of Fun—and a Bit of Caution

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you give in when your kids push for more screen time. My husband and I have two grown boys who loved (and still love) their game time. I can identify with the frustrations many parents go through with managing their children’s love for gaming. My husband and I nearly tore our hair out trying to reduce screen time when they were younger.

But maybe you can use some of these financial video games as a bargaining chip—giving them screen time for the right type of game. That in itself could be kind of a financial lesson. You might even tie some of the lessons they learn online to real-life experiences with their own money, helping them earn, save, and budget for things they want. As with any online activity, set up parental controls as appropriate, and help your child take steps to protect passwords and personal information to avoid hacking and fraudsters.

However, when it comes to actual investing, I caution everyone to remember that it’s not a game. Online investing apps can make it easy to play, but financial decisions—especially when investing—are serious business. I’m all for making financial learning fun, but when it comes to managing real money, be sure to use all the critical and strategic thinking skills you may have learned in the virtual world to make well-thought-out decisions that actually make sense in real life.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a certified financial planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.”