Chances are good that many of us are playing more games than ever with our families. And while this extra time we're spending together has lots of potential for entertainment, it's also a great opportunity to sneak in some important life lessons — especially when it comes to money and finances. These expert-recommended games for all ages are not only fun but also functional, and can give your kids some practical real-world skills.
Social simulation games
Digital games and apps for kids that focus on money abound, but Animal Crossing (for the Nintendo Switch) scores extra points for cuteness — and because kids and adults actually want to play it. (In fact, the newest version, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is the No. 1 talked about game in the world right now.)
In the game, you create your own life amid a world of animal characters. You can sell items you collect, have your own savings account and follow the “stalk” market (where you buy and sell turnips) to make more money.
“It can be a great tool, teaching children how interest works, how stocks can lose and gain value, and how you can make money by selling what you have,” says Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry and Loanry. “While there are other more serious apps out there, I think by introducing finance in a more friendly environment, you can really teach them something they will always remember.”
Multiplayer video games
While many parents may worry about the amount of time teens spend playing video games, some multiplayer video games can teach kids how to be mindful with their resources by recreating real-life money transfers. For example, World of Warcraft has an active trade scene, ways you can “work” for money and an auction house that simulates a stock market.
“When a game subconsciously teaches kids that spending money on material things and liabilities will never put you ahead financially, it starts to build a specific awareness or foundation of financial skills that most children fail to learn by other means,” says Matthew Lyons, director of content at gaming site Game Gavel. He adds that World of Warcraft actually taught him how to save money at a young age.
Also, because you’re playing with other people, their choices influence the game’s “economy” and players have to learn to adapt and adjust accordingly by saving, working or trading — just like in the real world.
Another way to make money-based board games a little more learning-friendly? Use real money.
Money-based pretend play
For little kids, playtime is all about using their imaginations. Role-playing allows them to act out situations that focus on spending and saving money. “Try setting up a grocery store in your kitchen and teach spending and budgeting,” Flynt suggests. “This also helps children learn the value of a dollar and that money doesn’t grow on trees.”
To make your imaginative play all the more real, check out the Pretend & Play Calculator Cash Register toy, which is celebrating its 25-year anniversary. According to Ed Stassen, CFO of Learning Resources, the company that makes the toy, the cash register has endured because “it isn't tied to a particular game — kids get to create the game themselves.” No matter if your child wants to play grocery store, restaurant or hotel, a hands-on prop can reinforce the money lessons you're teaching.
Classic board games
For older kids, teaching basic finances is as simple as dusting off well-loved games like Monopoly or Life. “Games that use fake money are great ways to teach children about money and living expenses,” says Robyn Flint, a clinical mental health counselor who works with children and families. Players have to budget their cash and make decisions along the way — some of which pay off, and some of which can cost them in the long run.
Stassen encourages parents to let kids take turns as the banker. "[This job] can provide children with the responsibility of making sure the other players receive the right amount of money during the game," he says.
Another way to make money-based board games a little more learning-friendly? Use real money, suggests finance writer Max Kimmel of One Shot Finance.
“Kids know that there is value to a real-life dollar,” he says. “So, they will think much harder about whether to buy something when they have to buy it with actual money — especially if you plan on letting them keep some if they win. This will help the child learn to judge whether something is worth buying, or if the money should be saved up for a bigger purchase instead.”
Work—and play—with an allowance
Giving your kids an allowance can be a hands-on way to establish financial lessons in your home. Made into a game of sorts, it can even be fun.
“Create a checkbook register online and give your child an allowance of $20 to start with,” Flint says. “As they spend it, they’ll learn how to deduct it from their available balance. This is a great lesson for budgeting.” You can find printable blank check and registers available online.
Even just throwing coins into a piggy bank can turn into a game. Dump out the change and count the money together. “After thoroughly cleaning a set of coins, parents can utilize them in counting exercises, size or number associations and so much more,” Stassen says. “A simple activity could be going through an old grocery store receipt and giving a child a set of coins. Parents can go item by item and ask their children to provide the correct amount of money for each particular item.”