When my family got our first Nintendo NES console in 1988, I quickly fell in love with the puzzle-game Tetris. I spent hours playing, improving my ability to fit tetrominoes together. Just hearing the song Korobeiniki can take me back to the joy of solving the Tetris puzzle over and over.
In the thirty years that have passed since then, I have come to realize that my enjoyment of Tetris is related to my career as a personal finance writer. Both Tetris and personal finance are all about strategy and good decisions.
In fact, managing your finances has a lot in common with playing Tetris. Here’s how the game of Tetris explains your finances:
Tetris Blocks Are Like Your Bills
Tetris is easy to play when you first start. You can easily set your tetrominoes anywhere on the bare “floor” of the game early on, and creating horizontal lines requires little planning on your part. Starting the game is a little like only having a few bills while making good money. Paying bills in that case is a simple, low-stress task and managing finances is quite simply, manageable.
However, with both Tetris and finances, an unwise early decision can cause you problems down the road. For instance, in Tetris, setting a T-shaped piece point-side down in the center of the open floor will make it more difficult for you to clear a horizontal line in the future. Similarly, deciding to only pay the minimum on a credit card bill when you could afford to pay more will make it tougher for you to pay off your debt in the future. Because in the future, you will be facing other bills or financial needs, just as your Tetris future will have more blocks coming down at a faster rate. Managing finances only comes trickier with age and new life events such as buying a house or having kids.
In addition, just as traditional Tetris has no end-point where you have won the game and the tetronimoes stop falling, your bills will never stop coming. You need to work within the framework you have to handle the blocks and bills that continue to come while dealing with the blocks and bills that are already cluttering things up.
Understanding the Shape of Your Monthly Finances
Of course, most of us are not working with a clean slate of bills. It’s more like starting Tetris halfway through, with blocks already piled up. Those piles of blocks that are next-to-impossible to make disappear are like your recurring bills. Your rent or mortgage, your student loan, your car payment, your credit card bill, your utilities, and other repeating bills are the financial tetrominoes in your monthly budget that you need to work around.
If you take the time to plan ahead, having these bills does not need to cause you stress. You can even work to make some of them disappear with some careful strategizing.
For instance, when I first graduated from college, I worked a retail job where I took home about $1,000 per month. My rent was over $500 per month, and I was paying $200 per month to my student loans, while carrying $2,400 in credit card debt. But instead of stressing about my budget, I’d try to figure out how make it all fit together. I’d jot down all of my monthly expenses, and then “play” with the non-fixed numbers to calculate how I could stay within my budget or even get ahead.
Knowing the shape of my fixed expenses helped me to make good choices with my discretionary spending. This is just like recognizing what shapes would best fit in the already-piled blocks of Tetris.
Anticipating the Future
Tetris does not just have new tetronimoes appear at the top of the game. Instead, you are shown which shapes are coming next so that no new block is a surprise. To succeed in Tetris, you need to drop your current blocks in ways that can be completed with forthcoming blocks, so that the current moves you make prepare you for the future.
This is similar to money management. If you are simply paying bills as they come without thinking about how you will afford next month’s bills, you may be overwhelming yourself in the future. This is what happens with the payday loan cycle. Taking out a payday loan order to pay the bill right in front of you may allow you to stay afloat right now, but it will make next month’s bills that much more difficult to pay.
Succeeding at money management means having a plan in place for your future bills so that you are not constantly scrambling.
How Your Emergency Fund Is Like the Easy Spin
When you are playing Tetris, the tetronimoes will fall faster and faster the longer you play. But some versions of the game give you a move that allows you to slow a block while you decide where it should go. The easy spin, which pauses the descent of the tetronimo when you rotate it, gives you a chance to think strategically instead of simply reacting as quickly as possible.
While many Tetris purists were horrified by the easy spin, this move offers a kind of breathing room that is similar to having an emergency fund. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, an unanticipated expense can make it impossible to pay all your bills. Suddenly, it will feel like the bills are coming faster than you can deal with them. But an emergency fund allows you to pay for your unexpected expense without harming your monthly budget. That gives you time to figure out how to replenish your emergency fund and perhaps even prevent the next unexpected expense.
You Can Solve Your Financial Tetris
Every Tetris game will eventually end with blocks falling too fast for you to react in time. That’s an important difference between the game and your financial management. Tetris may always end with blocks piled to the sky, but every day gives you a new opportunity to make your financial obligations fit within your budget and income.
Treating your finances as a game to win, like Tetris, can give you the emotional distance you need to make become a master at managing finances.