The Power of Habit in Monopoly (& Personal Finances)

DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

Last year’s lessons from Monopoly 

A little over a year ago, I wrote the post “Monopoly and Debt Repayment“. In it, I lamented my losing streak against DD3 who, I was certain, had poor strategy in the game. An overly safe player, DD3 would choose not to buy properties she landed on because she stubbornly insisted upon keeping a good stash of cash. I, on the other hand, would buy every property that came my way – in the name of future wealth-building – and I’d usually have a full two or three sets before she had even one.

But when the time came for me to put houses on all of my properties, I couldn’t afford to. And if I could, I’d max out – always cash poor. Meanwhile, DD3, on her one measly set of properties, would slowly build up her houses – always maintaining what I considered to be an unnecessary amount of money just in case bad luck came her way – until she eventually traded up for hotels.

You know the rest. If she happened to land on one of my various properties, in its house-less or only-modestly-housed state, she would easily pay me the small sum owed. When I landed on her single set of hotel-ed properties, I’d have to mortgage some of my own and/or sell off a few of my poor houses just to make the payment. Until I lost.

And what have I learned?

You’d think that over a year later, I’d be equipped with a better Monopoly game plan. You’d think I would have mastered that balance between building up savings on the one hand, and investing in future wealth-building opportunities on the other. I got some great comments after that original Monopoly post. One, from my friend Laurie included some soundbites she remembered from her father, a successful property owner:  “‘Over expansion ruins many a successful business’ . . .  ‘Never bet more than you can afford to lose; “Never spend your capital.'”

Alas, I am still guilty of over expansion when I play Monopoly. I continue to bet way more than I can afford to lose. I consistently put myself in the position of having to spend my capital.

DD3 enjoyed a resounding victory this past week-end when we played a game. Early on, as I bought property after property, she became a bit worried. The toss of her dice brought her to spaces that didn’t offer the chance to buy, and then she’d choose not to buy when she actually had the opportunity. After one such decision not to buy a property, I said, “And THAT is the reason you are going to lose this game.” I then advised her against being too cautious and overly-picky. DD3 made it clear that she hadn’t asked for my commentary, so I kept smugly silent as the game progressed.

It was a slow, painful, and mortifying death I suffered. My smugness diminished into destitution as DD3’s worry blossomed into sheer joy. I had three full property sets while she had only one, but the old narrative played itself out. And you can bet I heard plenty of her commentary when the inevitable end resulted.

The Power of Habit

I recently read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and it gives me some tools to use in tackling my poor Monopoly habits. (I’ve added the bold font.)

“Hundreds of habits influence our days . . . they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple, and some are complex . . . But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable . . . to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it . . . that control is real” (Duhigg, 270).

Step #1 – Acknowledge the habit: I have known for over a year now that I have the habit of over-extending myself when I play Monopoly, taking high risks that almost always end up with me going broke.

Clearly, the fact that I’ve acknowledged this habit has not meant that I’ve changed it.

Step #2 – Identify the cues and rewards that drive the habit’s routines: The main cue for me is landing on an unoccupied property. There is both fear and hope involved in a sense of urgency that I can’t pass up on this opportunity! Fear: If I don’t buy it, DD3 might, and then I’ll wish I had. Hope: If I buy this, I’ll get wealthy and win the game!  The reward is what Duhigg calls a “subtle neurochemical prize” – meaning my brain gets a bit of a happy hit every time I buy a property or a house. Wooooo-hooo!

Step #3 – Be self-conscious enough to use the control I have to find alternatives: The next time I play Monopoly, my challenge will be to respond differently to the cue of landing on an available property. I know that my impulse will be a fearful, hopeful I can’t pass up on this opportunity! But I know better, and I will exert control so that I don’t act upon that impulse. I will buy or not buy based upon how much money I have and whether or not I have already purchased one of the other properties in that set. I’ll forego the Wooooo-hooo! happy brain hit, and open myself up to the possibility of new rewards that come not with maxing out, but saving up.

Connection to Personal Finances?

Of course there are connections to personal finances here! Mine in particular. If you’ve been reading about my journey out of debt for any amount of time, you know that I struggle with my discretionary money. I overextend; I spend on impulse in both hope (“This will be fun/delicious/interesting!”); and fear (“I’ll regret it if I don’t buy it.”); and at the end of every month, my discretionary account is at zero. Or less.

Baby steps required here. First, I’ll see how my new strategy of conscious control and new alternatives to cues and rewards impacts my Monopoly game. I’ll keep you posted.

Do you have a financial (or other) habit that you’ve struggled to change? Can you apply Duhigg’s model of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the routines of that habit? And how about that “self-conscious control” bit? Your comments are welcome.


33 comments on “The Power of Habit in Monopoly (& Personal Finances)

  1. Ugh, Monopoly! How many friendships and marriages has that game broken up over the years? J/K (I think). Anyway, I’m much better at Chess. Not sure how that applies to personal finance though. I do know this much, if DD3 treats real money issues the way she does Monopoly ones, you will never have to worry about her, that’s for sure!

    1. I can’t think of a way to connect Chess with personal finances. Hmmm… I’m sure there is some kind of metaphor there …. You are right about DD3. She DOES treat real money the way she plays Monopoly. I love seeing that!

  2. I haven’t played Monopoly in the longest time, but how you play says something interesting about how you approach finances, even if they’re imaginary. And of course how you approach finances has parallels with how you approach your other habits. Luckily I have more self-control over my money than I do over how much I eat and how little I exercise. I agree that recognizing the cues and finding the alternatives is key, but I have yet to master those. Baby steps indeed!

    1. I’m the opposite, Gary. I have pretty good self-control when it comes to exercise, so-so self-control when it comes to food, and – at least until recently – poor self-control with money. I love what Duhigg has to say about habits being malleable. It is hard work to identify those cues, routines, rewards, and alternatives. It’s hard to pull out of auto-pilot mode. But it can be done : ) I wish you well with your baby steps!

  3. I think you can tell a lot about a person over a board game. 🙂 Some interesting personality traits come out when faced with a win/lose situation. I’d be interested to hear how your next game goes. Acknowledged was out first step out of debt. Th next task was to break the bad habits we had routinely used for years. It was tough at first not to slip back into those old habits, but since it was now top of mind it helped from falling back.

    1. “Top of mind” is key. Most of us function in auto-pilot mode, unconsciously following deeply entrenched habits that we’re not even aware of. If you can manage to maintain that “top of mind” awareness, change is possible. You have clearly proven that fact : )

  4. So powerful, Ruth!! I realized this week that I have a habit of wanting to go “spend happy” when things lighten up for us financially. I’ve been working hard at not spending, and rearranging some things in order to get our DTI number down after our last year’s debt reduction breakdown and the debt’s subsequent increase. Our DTI, although still high, is 7% lower than it was and payments are much more affordable. What a relief! Then this week I found myself looking at new furniture ads and searching for newer cars on Craigslist. Whoa, Nellie!! What was I doing?????? Luckily I caught it and changed things up before any spending happened, but it was a stark wake-up call that I have a long-held habit that has GOT to change.

    1. I’m so glad the “Whoa, Nellie!!” kicked in : ) It is evidence that your long-held habit IS changing. I remember reading in Ramsey’s book about someone having worked their way to complete debt-freedom, well-cushioned by savings, and being in a store with lots of eye candy. The person (can’t remember if it was Ramsey or someone else) COULD buy just about anything . . . but chose not to. I really want to get to that point. There’s a power in that state of mind that I would like to have. Congrats on the 7% decrease in DTI! Here’s to the next percentage point that will be achieved thanks to your “Whoa Nellie!!” shield.

  5. Love the Monopoly analogy, Ruth! No one in my house will play with me anymore because I consistently win 😉 ! My strategy is much like your daughter’s, though I probably take slightly more risk and like to barter on the side for properties I want (not sure if I’m playing by the “rules” by doing that).

    I read The Power of Habit a few months ago and was fascinated by how habits play such a huge role in our lives. I was particularly interested in the information on momentum. Duhigg talks about people making one big habit change in their lives (such as weight loss/healthy lifestyle) and how, eventually, that big change provides them with momentum to make other positive changes in their lives. I’ve seen this with my own life. I dropped 50 pounds, then started paying off debt, got my black belt, etc.

    One habit I can’t seem to change is my coffee drinking. all. day. long. The question is, do I really want to?

    1. So cool that you recently read the book too : ) I think “keystone habits” was the term he used for those habits that have such dramatic and positive ripple effects. How wonderful that weight loss, debt-reduction, and physical fitness have all happened for you! As for the coffee . . . All day long? How many cups would that be? I’m pretty sure that there is a “too much” amount when it comes to coffee, but I also think it varies from person to person. Obviously I’m no expert on this topic! The “all. day. long.” is a bit of a red flag for me though. (Sorry!) Definitely worth checking into.

  6. I don’t have the patience for Monopoly, I don’t think I have ever completed a full game. We used to play Monopoly Jr. as children. But the original is a good game because it requires patience (i.e. no instant gratification).

    Also a really good recommend read as well!

    1. Thank you, Josh. It really does take patience to play Monopoly. If your kids are still little, it’s probably not a good game for them yet. But when they get older, I hope you’ll give it a go again – see if your patience has developed : ) Power of Habit is such an interesting book. I definitely recommend it.

  7. Love Monopoly!!!

    It teaches so many different principles including, which I hate, that luck is part of life. (My dad is the LUCKIEST roller in the history of Monopoly!!!)

    I prefer chess these days as it minimizes the luck factor, but dad won’t play with me! 🙂

    1. Is that I knight I see as your gravatar? You really DO like chess! Very good point to make about luck. However luck doesn’t play into a vacuum. In the area of personal finance, good luck can either be squandered in one set of hands or multiplied in anther. And bad luck can either decimate or be almost imperceptibly absorbed. I’m trying to set myself up for the second option in each case. Thanks for your comment, ESI.

  8. That’s a great analogy. However, I have to say DD3’s strategy is not the optimal one for the game of Monopoly 😉

    Unless you’re “playing nice” with her, or are doing something else that’s not optimal — or she’s extremely lucky, heh — she should generally lose if she’s hoarding cash in the early stages, especially if you’re using the official rules, where if she doesn’t buy a property she lands on, it goes to auction and you can buy it for cheap.

    Here is a cheat sheet for next time 😉

  9. Thank you for the links, Sam! You are one serious Monopoly player! I promise I don’t “play nice” with my daughter. I think it’s just that her rather cautious strategy in selecting properties to buy generally wins out over my non-strategy of buying almost everything that comes my way. I didn’t know about the auction rule. Thanks again : )

  10. Duhigg’s steps remind me of an interview I heard with Judson Brewer recently. He was talking about using mindfulness to break bad habits. I love the idea of approaching your bad habits with curiosity instead of guilt/shame. I certainly plan on trying this technique out to address my own (many) bad habits! 🙂

    Here’s the ted talk he was discussing in the interview I heard:

    1. Thank you Bridget! I will watch that TED talk. Guilt and shame are the worst enemies to personal growth. They keep people in denial or prompt phoniness and fearful secrecy. I like your choice of the word “curiosity” – because our bad habits can be baffling, and their roots are definitely interesting. (Speaking of “curiosity”, what bad habits are you talking about? : )

      1. Very run-of-the-mill bad habits – procrastinating when I’m feeling stressed, indulging my sweet tooth a little too often, etc.
        I have to give credit to Judson Brewer for using the word “curiosity”. It stood out for me as well! I’ll let you know if I have any success using this method! 🙂

  11. Perhaps challenging your daughter to a game of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride would work more in your favor. They certainly favor action to inaction.

    Monopoly teaches two important investing lessons: You need the money to do a deal, and if you don”t do a deal eventually you’ll go broke. Sounds like your daughter should consider going into real estate investing. She’s likely to make a killing.

    1. I still maintain that she is overly-cautious, and she does on occasion fall to the truth that “if you don’t do a deal eventually you’ll go broke.” We’ve got Settlers of Catan, but not TIcket to Ride – I’ll have to check that one out. I will pass along your recommendation of real estate investing to my daughter. (And I’ll know who to send her to for advice.)

  12. I love your description of how bringing awareness to the cues and rewards that prevail when you’re playing monopoly is an effective exercise to understanding the emotions and beliefs operative in real life money matters. Also, my father would be pleased to know that his soundbites live on!

    1. Thank you, Laurie. For me, they play out pretty identically from Monopoly to my poor discretionary fund. Your father’s soundbites will be living on in my ears for sure! Hopefully to the benefit of both my Monopoly game and my discretionary fund : )

  13. Recognizing the habit and cues are both very helpful. My hardest to break “habits” are ways of thinking, though. Maybe that’s a different topic altogether, but I do believe some of the same principles apply, including the control to think differently or lay a thought to rest.

    1. I think the same principles do apply, but because thoughts are more subtle, it takes a higher level of awareness to know when they’re kicking in. I would say that an important aspect of changing “thought habits” is not to judge as you observe. Judgment clouds discernment, and a high level of discernment is needed.

  14. Gosh, I haven’t played Monopoly in the longest! Now I want to play 🙂

    I always enjoy your analogies Ruth, to every day things. Keep up the good work my friend!

  15. Ruth, nice article here. The Monopoly analogy and connection to The Power of Habit (great book) stands out. In the world of endless blog posts it seems the majority are all the same.

    Thanks for saying something different and being original and valuable!

  16. Thank you, Mike! One reason why many blog posts might seem “the same” is that each one of us who is actually experiencing debt repayment has to learn “the same” things that everyone else is learning. For each writer, it’s “new” learning – but for readers, it comes across as all too familiar. Having said that, I’m not always quick to learn, so getting “the same” message from different sources has often proved to reinforce the new habits I’m trying to adopt. But I’m glad you found something unique here : ) Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  17. Great article! I LOVE monopoly. It’s what my family did nearly at least once a week growing up.

    I really like the relationship here too because my strategy for the longest time was also to buy up as much as possibly as quickly as possible. So I can definitely relate. Great article!

    1. Thank you so much, Nick! I wonder if your tendency to buy too much too quickly in Monopoly has also surfaced in some way in your real personal finances – as it has done for me. Thanks for reading and commenting : )

  18. My habit is too many dinners out with my girlfriend that include fancy cocktails. The cue for me to get a cocktail is her ordering one. We usually split 50/50 and I want my “fair” share of the meal. I’ll have to just order what I want and ask us to divide according to what we ate, or convince her that we don’t need cocktails as often.

    1. Ever since we started our journey out of debt, my husband and I have managed our own separate discretionary accounts – for things like meals out. So unless one of us specifically says, “I’ll treat you,” the understanding is that we’ll each pay our own bill. Not as romantic as the 50/50 thing, but it has the impact of raising each person’s level of awareness about spending – and that’s a very good thing when it comes to meeting financial goals. I vote for the “divide according to what we ate” option. All the best with this, ZJ! Thanks for your comment : )

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