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Call me crazy, but I’d much rather play a couple of rounds of Angry Birds rather than make a plan to pay down my credit card debt. It turns out a lot of people think games are more fun than twiddling with budgets on a spreadsheet. That’s why the trend of “gamification”— incorporating game-like elements into otherwise mundane activities — is such a hot topic right now. Aaron Dignan, the author of Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, writes that gamification helps people solve problems, gives them more control, lets them track their progress, and helps them overcome their fears.

Gamification makes sense to me. So when I heard about payoff.com a new personal finance service that makes use of gamification, I was excited to give it a try. Payoff.com is designed to help you set financial goals, such as save for college, pay off a credit card, or save for a vacation.  I set up a goal to save enough money to pay next year’s car insurance premium in a lump sum, instead of paying it month by month and incurring the insurers’ usurious 18% finance charge. My annual premium is about $2000, and it will be due on October 1, 2011.

I entered this information into the form, and payoff.com presented me with four different opportunities to earn badges: linking my Facebook account to payoff.com, for signing into payoff.com every day for a week, for completing my payoff.com profile, or inviting friends and family to payoff.com. To me, these badges weren’t much of an incentive. They seemed to serve payoff.com’s needs more than my own. (I also received four badges via email: the Smart Saver Badge, the Smart Spender Badge, the Goal Setter Badge, and the VIP badge. This felt like badge inflation an did I really deserve so many badges just for setting up a goal? Badges are only worth something if you have to work to earn them.)

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Payoff.com also recommended that I open a new savings account to store my funds, offering to connect me to one of a number of online banks. If you open an account with one of those banks, payoff.com receives a “nominal fee.” I don’t begrudge payoff.com for making money, but having to open a new savings account for each goal is not convenient.


At this point, I ditched payoff.com and switched to SmartyPig.com, a similar site that I reviewed here, and set up my car insurance goal. SmartyPig.com withdraws the money each month from my checking account and stores it for me — unlike payoff.com, there’s no need to set up a new savings account for each goal.


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SmartyPig’s gamification is minimal but powerful: each goal has it’s own piggy bank with a cash level that rises over time.  It’s just the right amount of gamification to keep me coming back. To be fair, payoff.com is still in beta, so I expect to see improvements by the time it gets out of beta. But they certainly have a long way to go, and the game mechanics need a lot of work. For now, SmartyPig.com is the only game in town.

Image by Andrew Currie, via Flickr

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  • http://payoff.com/ Adam Zarlengo

    Mark, thanks for checking out Payoff and we definitely value your feedback. 

    We are in the process of addressing some of the items you mention, specifically around the badges recommended during the goal set-up process and the emails. We agree that the badge recommendations need to be relevant to the user and we are actively working on making the recommendations personalized. At the same time, we are also adding new badges that will help users make progress towards their goals.

    We have given our badges a lot of thought and the badges mentioned (VIP, Smart Saver and Spender, Goal Setter) are meant to encourage and motivate the user upon joining and get them started. We do agree that badges are worth more when you have to work to earn them, which is why many of our badges are awarded for real-life progress (i.e. Backup Chute — saving three months of income, Farewell — pay off a credit card, Sherlock Holmes — checking your credit score).

    We do offer users the ability to use their existing accounts when setting up a savings goal, in addition to providing the option to open a new account. We recommend the option for a new account in order to make tracking a savings goal easier. With that said, we will definitely take a look at how we can make it clearer to users that they can either use their existing account or open a new one.

    We are rapidly iterating, based on feedback like this, and we appreciate your help!

    Adam Zarlengo
    Director, Product Development at Payoff.com

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  • http://www.gameframers.com Aaron Dignan

    Mark – thanks for the mention. Glad to see that you played with these solutions, as that is the key phase of all this gamification talk – play testing. If we don’t improve these experiences iteratively, we can forget about it.

  • http://www.smartypig.com Michael Ferrari


    Thanks for the mention. We’ve got some pretty cool things planned in the near future that will only enhance the user experience around making saving fun. Stay tuned!

    Oh, and good luck saving for that car insurance goal…

    p.s. big fan of BoingBoing… Nicely done.

    Michael Ferrari, SmartyPig co-founder

    • Mark Frauenfelder

      Thanks for the comment, Michael. SmartyPig is awesome. I would love a sneak peek at your new features. mark@boingboing.net

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