- [Mister Raroo returns with his regular 'Game Time' column to discuss how his personal finances no longer permit him to buy games in the same quantity as he used to - and why that isn't necessarily a bad thing, given the multitude of choices and alternatives available to today's gamer.]

From Surplus to Deficit

It’s interesting how just a short amount of time can make such a difference on your perspective. Videogames certainly have the potential to be an expensive hobby, and a few years ago I didn’t think twice about dropping $50 on any game that caught my attention. I had enough disposable income that the price of games was never a factor in my decision-making process. Instead, if something looked interesting, I went for it. I was spending hundreds of dollars a month on games because, quite simply, I could.

Today, however, it’s an entirely different story. In a nutshell, I can’t afford games like I used to be able to, and I know from speaking with many of my peers that they’re in the same boat. Not only has my salary remained stagnant while the cost of living has gone through the roof, but I have more expenses than ever. Back when I was able to buy games on a whim, I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments, child care costs, or climbing gas prices. Money is a lot tighter now, and that has had a serious impact on my spending habits.

I’m happy to report I’ve managed to find ways to continue purchasing and enjoying games, though not without making many sacrifices and significantly changing my spending habits. The days of buying any game that catches my fancy may be long gone, but I’m continuing to find ways to fund my favorite hobby. I might not be able to spend hundreds of dollars a month, but I can still buy new games from time to time.

There are many strategies I’ve employed to help free up some gaming funds, and overall I think I’ve been very successful. I might not be buying games at the frequency I did in the past, but in many ways I’m actually getting more enjoyment out of my game purchases. Without sounding too much like an infomercial, I must point out that the fiscal tactics that have worked for me may not be the right fit for others, but hopefully this article will give readers some ideas on how to still afford games even when their wallets may be getting awfully thin.

- Learning to Budget

During my period as a big spender, I was under the impression that I was doing moderately well keeping track of my finances. As it turns out, I wasn’t. I never kept a formal budget until a few years ago, and it wasn’t until that point that I was able to see an accurate representation of the amount of income I had to work with in relation to how much money I was spending. It was rather shocking to see that the quantity of outgoing money was dangerously close to matching or even exceeding my income. It was painfully clear: I was a bad budgeter.

Actually, I have to admit that if it weren’t for one particular incident, I probably wouldn’t have started taking budgeting so seriously. Years ago, when we were first living together, my wife Akemi and I were out grocery shopping and when we got to the checkout counter, Akemi asked me whether she or I would be paying since we were still rookies on how to split our finances. I told her I was pretty much cleaned out until my next paycheck and so that led to the obvious conclusion that she was paying. She stood there for a minute looking at me incredulously, then took out her wallet and paid the cashier. By time we got to the car, her disbelief turned into utter frustration and she asked, “But didn’t you just buy a couple of new games earlier this week?”

Sheepishly, I admitted that indeed I had purchased some games but that I had figured we could put off getting more food for longer since I had been accustomed to skimping on necessities in favor of games or music when I was single. Besides, I was going to get paid in a few days, and I could buy groceries then. Now, my wife is a small package—she stands about 5’3” and weighs only about 100 pounds—and she one of the nicest and most thoughtful people you’ll ever meet, but if you make her angry enough, you may summon what I like to call the “Akemi Monster.”

Akemi Monster only comes out on rare occasions. For instance, one time at a San Diego Padres game an inebriated fan behind us was yelling out racist comments about Ichiro Suzuki. Akemi, being of Japanese descent, did not stand for that and quickly turned around to give him an earful, which certainly took the man by surprise.

So, when the Akemi Monster appeared because of my fiscal irresponsibility, I knew I was in hot water and had been acting foolishly. It was at that moment that I decided I needed to get serious about budgeting. Never again did I want to hear the sharp words repeated, “You have money to buy games, but you don’t have money for groceries!?” And, all of these years later, I’m proud to report that the Akemi Monster has never made a repeat appearance (well, at least not over this issue, anyway!).

Plotting out all my expenses via the computer program Quicken was the solution I needed to learn how to successfully budget my income. I find it very helpful to be able to see my finances in a format other than the jumbled mess of my thoughts. I plan out all my income and expenses for the next month or two, give myself a cushion for any unexpected costs that may arise, and take a look at what is left over. It is from this remainder fund that I decide the amount of money I have to spend on games.

Keeping on top of my personal bookkeeping is actually a more challenging task than I thought it’d be. Every single time I make a purchase, I enter it in my Quicken spreadsheet as soon as possible. I also regularly match up the Quicken data to my online banking data, and it’s startling how often I make a small mistake or typo in my bookkeeping. If it weren’t for continually keeping tabs on my budget situation, I’d probably be in big trouble!

-Cutting Out Unnecessary Expenses

Once I was able to see my finances clearly laid out in Quicken, it dawned on me that I was spending way too much money on things that weren’t necessary. I was regularly dropping $5 here and $10 there without thinking much about it, but those costs really added up. If I wanted to have funds to buy games, I’d have to cut those unnecessary expenses. It was actually pretty freeing to do away with many of those ephemeral costs.

To begin with, I decided to stop going out to eat during my lunch breaks at work. Since my job is located in a mall setting with numerous food establishments within walking distance, I used to eat out on a daily basis, but now I pack a lunch instead. Every weekend Akemi and I go grocery shopping and I buy my lunch supplies for the upcoming work week. The cost of a week’s worth of homemade lunches just about matches one day’s worth of buying lunch. In addition, the time I save by not going out to eat gives me some additional moments to enjoy some gaming during my break!

Beyond work lunches, I also decided to cut out the number of times I went out to eat in general, opting instead for home-cooked meals. Just as with my work lunches, eating at home is far less expensive than going out for meals, and it also ends up saving me time. I can now fit more activities into my evenings and weekends, which means I have a little more breathing room to do more of the things I want to do, like play videogames. Besides, the meals I eat at home are a lot healthier than the food I was bringing home from the likes of Jack in the Box and the other fast food restaurants I used to frequent.

I’ve also managed to do away with many other expenses that on the surface didn’t seem like much, but together added up to a sizeable sum. For example, I’ve stopped buying DVDs, music, and books, have opted not to renew magazine subscriptions, rarely go to the movies, and have the most basic cable option. I no longer make impulse buys at the store and I always shop sales and look for bargains when I legitimately need to buy something. Little by little, doing away with even small expenses has helped me to pool some spending money that I would otherwise not have. And, honestly, I don’t really miss most of the things I’ve cut out.

-Making an “Essentials” List

Ever since I first learned to write, I have enjoyed creating massive wish lists for my birthday and Christmas. Holidays and birthdays are a great way to get your hands on games that you may otherwise not be able to afford. My tradition of lists is still in effect almost 30 years later and my family knows to expect one whenever it’s getting close (say, within a month or two!) of my birthday or Christmas. Even though it’s kind of embarrassing that my game-filled wish lists are almost exactly the same as those of my nine-year-old nephew, I always manage to score some choice games whenever a holiday or birthday rolls around.

My wish lists have actually served to demonstrate to myself that I don’t just want a lot of games—I want a ridiculous amount of games! But the lists also help me keep track of what games are on the horizon, so I decided to expand my list-making into a year-round practice. Every few months it seems like I’m scanning the upcoming releases on various retailers’ websites to generate my absurdly-long wish lists. It is from these lists that I plot out what I can actually afford.

Once I create a list of games, I try to cut out some duds to pare everything down to what I consider to be a reasonable number (which is usually still too large for my budget!). I then run the list by Akemi who, because she is pretty keen on figuring out what games I’d actually like and which I should kick to the curb, helps me shorten the list even more. It’s a good thing I use Akemi’s outside perspective, too, otherwise over the years I would’ve probably purchased such “hits” as Enter the Matrix, Driv3r, and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude.

After cutting the list down to its “essentials,” I let it sit for a few days before going back to decide if any of the games truly qualify as “full price purchases.” More often than not, most of the games on the list aren’t worth paying for on day one. Even though $50 or $60 might not have seemed like a considerable amount of cash when I had money to burn, today I view it much differently. $50 can pay for the bulk of a grocery shopping trip, a couple boxes of diapers, or four months of basic cable. Unless a release is something truly special to me, such as a new Castlevania or Super Mario game, chances are I won’t be paying full price for it.

I’ve also broadened my “essentials” idea to downloadable games on services like Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Store, and the Wii Shopping Channel. Because their price is so low, it’s very tempting to snatch these games up each week when the networks are updated with new content. I quickly realized, though, that buying a few downloadable games a month quickly piled up. It’s tempting to purchase something just because it’s cheap, but my way to deter this urge is to ask myself, “Is this something I’d actually go to the store to buy?” Super Stardust HD is definitely a game I’d make a trip to purchase, but a disappointment like TiQal, on the other hand, is not. Although something may be inexpensive, it still isn’t worthwhile if it doesn’t make the cut on my “essentials” list.

-Staying Six to Twelve Months Behind

It’s always at least a little painful to pay full price for a game that, only a couple months later, is on clearance for less than half the original cost. While a handful of games become rare and actually go up in value months or years down the line, the majority of games can be purchased for a fraction of their former price not long after their release. My new strategy for buying games, then, has been to put myself six to twelve months behind the current releases. That said, at times it can be rather excruciating to know I’m missing out on playing a game that so many other people are enjoying at that very second!

Waiting for six to twelve months means not only am I usually able to buy games for a cheaper price, but many times I end up realizing I can do without the games, period. Release hype can be a dangerous thing, and in the past I’ve often bought the latest, hottest games just because the excitement surrounding them was so irresistible. In retrospect, many of those titles turned out to be disappointments and before long they were collecting dust on a shelf. Why did I spend top dollar on Devil May Cry 2, for instance? Removing myself from the hype by steering away from buying most games upon their release has helped me to save a lot of money over the past few years.

It’s also worth pointing out that by not being up-to-date with the newest releases, I’m actually able to buy more games in the long run. Even though I might not be experiencing the excitement of playing an eagerly-anticipated game right when it hits store shelves, waiting a fairly short period of time means the money I would’ve spent on a game at full price will buy me not only that title when it’s discounted, but possibly a couple other games as well. Although there are always a few select games like Panzer Dragoon Saga which wind up being impossible to secure for a low price after their release, most other games will be selling for a portion of their price within a relatively short amount of time.

Speaking of rarities like Panzer Dragoon Saga, a major reason I used to be so hesitant about waiting for games to go down in price is because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find them in the future. I would buy games based solely on the notion that they’d become rare and collector’s items. This idea led me to purchase games I didn’t necessarily want to play. I was also reluctant to buy games unless they were in complete and mint condition. Shaking the collector’s mentality has been difficult, but it has ended up saving me a lot of money. Some games may become extremely rare, but if I truly want to buy them at a later date, there’s always a way to do so.

Now that I’ve learned to let go of the impulse to buy games on their release dates, I’ve discovered that there is something rather satisfying about snatching a few superb titles from a bargain bin, knowing you saved a great deal of money in the process. Shopping the bargain bins exclusively is actually a way of life for many people. My young nephew Mario, for example, isn’t allowed to buy new games until they appear in what he calls the “special section.” Now that my finances are so tight, I’ve also become a frequenter of the “special section,” and I have even lamented to Akemi on many occasions that certain games I want to purchase need to hurry up and make their way to the “special section” so I can finally take them home!

-On a quick tangent, I’ve got to mention the most notorious “special section” of all: the dumpster. Because I used to think like a collector, I had kept every single superfluous bit of packaging for games and systems for as long as I can remember. This past Fall when Akemi and I were moving to our new home, I decided to do away with all the unnecessary boxes and other paraphernalia and took them to our apartment complex’s dumpster (I still kept all the cases and instructions booklets, though!). When we happened to walk by the dumpster not ten minutes later, someone had already descended upon the numerous boxes, ripping them to shreds in what I’m guessing was the hopes that I had thrown out the actual games, systems, and accessories.

Selling, Trading, Renting, and Borrowing

Perhaps because I work in the library field, I enjoy having a sizable collection of games and I like to go back and revisit many of the titles I own, sometimes years later. It’s fun to think of the games I own as being my own personal videogame library, with me being the head librarian overseeing the collection’s development. I’m not crazy when it comes to cataloging, but I separate my games by system and region.

All libraries need to weed outdated and underused materials in order to remain healthy and relevant, and my game collection is no exception. I’ve purchased a rather depressing amount of games that I haven’t touched since the day they came home with me. I may have had fun playing them for a brief stint, but beyond that initial period, those games have just sat untouched, cluttering up my shelves. Like any good librarian, I realize that from time to time I need to weed my own collection.

There’s no point in holding on to games that you’re never going to play again, so trading them or selling them to a game store in order to generate some funds for new games can be a smart move. That said, it’s important not to get ripped off! Some stores will only offer a small amount of cash or credit for a trade-in, only to turn around and sell the game for three times that price. I believe that finding a good “mom n’ pop” business is often the way to go as they can sometimes give better trade-in deals, especially to loyal and responsible customers.

-However, it has been my experience that the selling games online provides the most money in the end. I’ve had great success selling via eBay, though I’ve had to be wary of bidders that were scammers and flakes. Providing as much upfront information as possible about a game’s condition, being exceptionally clear about the payment and shipping guidelines, and providing photos of the product has yielded the best results. Selling online requires more work than trading games at a store, but the extra revenue from my efforts has been well worth it.

Making permanent trades with other gamers is another great way to get your hands on some new games. Many gaming message boards have specific sections set aside just for trading, and there are even specific websites set up just for that purpose, too. I’ve had some really nifty trades with friends I know through a couple gaming of message boards. My recommendation is to always remember to be prompt in shipping out your games, package them well, and don’t be afraid to throw in a bonus or two for good measure! The better your reputation, the more likely others will want to trade with you.

In the past couple of years I’ve started renting more games and have found it to be a great way to play some of the titles I’m interested in without having to pay full price. These days, there are numerous game rental options available to gamers, ranging from brick and mortar establishments to by-mail services to online accessibility. With so many choices available, it’s easy enough to find an option that caters to one’s particular budget and level of necessity. I have a plan through Blockbuster Online that allows me two free game rentals a month, which works out to be just about right for me. Actually, I’m rather lucky because Akemi and I signed up for Blockbuster Online years back and the two free rentals a month is a perk no longer available to new members.

The problem with renting games is that doing so requires money, so borrowing from or temporarily trading games with friends is a great way to play new games when funds are low. If you’re lucky enough to have friends to swap games with, make sure you’re a good borrower! Nobody wants their games to be returned with smudges or scratches. In fact, I no longer lend out my games because I’ve been burned too many times by jerks that either mysteriously “lose” the games or bring them back in terrible condition. Even though ideally those irresponsible people should replace the games they’ve lost or trashed, it’s often an awkward situation and I’ve just bitten my lip and cut my losses. Accordingly, my game library has gone from being public to private.

If you’ll briefly pardon me for one additional tangent, I’ve got to take a moment to plug public libraries. Though the practice is still very much in its beginnings, videogames are quickly becoming more and more commonplace as circulating resources in library collections. Most library systems allow patrons to place holds on materials free of charge, too, so users can put themselves in line to check out the latest games. In addition, many libraries host gaming programs and tournaments for their patrons, with participants sometimes being treated to refreshments and even prizes. Go check out your local library and if they don’t circulate games, make a suggestion that they start doing so!

-The Bottom Line: Enjoy What You Have

Most (if not all) serious gamers have a “pile of shame” of some sort—that is, a stack of games they’ve been meaning to play but haven’t gotten around to giving those games the time they deserve. Buying fewer games and focusing your attention on your own personal stockpile of underplayed games will lead to more gaming enjoyment in the end. It’s silly to buy a game only to end up never playing it, but that is something I’ve been guilty of, and I know plenty of other people who have done the same. It’s absurd to buy games that won’t be played!

When I was a kid, I played each game to exhaustion. I explored every corner, knew every secret, and could probably even beat some games with my eyes closed. I can’t say the same is true today. As an adult, there are many games in my collection that I’ve barely touched, and that makes me feel more than a little ashamed. The child version of Mister Raroo would shake his head in disgust if he could see me now.

Especially given that finances are so tight, there is no justification for wasting money on games that won’t be played and enjoyed. Just because I mean to get around to playing a game doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s sitting untouched. If I’m not going to get my money’s worth out of a game, I might as well put those dollars towards something else. The $50 I wasted on an underplayed game could’ve gone into my son’s college fund or towards paying off my mortgage. Instead, it went to buy a plastic disc in a plastic box that does nothing but sit idly on a shelf.

Even though I’ve definitely gone through a major transformation in my gaming spending habits, there is still room for improvement. While I don’t buy as many games as I used to—and I certainly don’t spend full price on most of the games I buy—I still purchase too many games and don’t end up getting the most out of all of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I definitely have some distance to go in learning to be fully content with what I have and not be so concerned with what I don’t. As the gap between the cost of living and my salary widens, I’m going to need to continue to become smarter with my personal finances or face the consequences of monetary irresponsibility… not to mention the wrath of the Akemi Monster!

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at [email protected].]