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My top 3 takeaways from playing How Not To Suck at Money, an online game for college kids

"The game is structured around money dilemmas students are facing."

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Twenty/20

Getting a grasp on core financial literacy topics might not be at the top of your priority list as a college student. But what if the experience felt less like attending a seminar and more like hanging out with informative friends? That's the thinking behind How Not To Suck at Money — an online game released on Monday by Invesco QQQ as part of a partnership with the NCAA.

When the game begins, the year is 2031. In the decade since school, you've let your money habits worsen, and you're living in your mom's basement. Luckily, your mom has a time machine down there (handy!) which allows you to travel back to college to learn the money lessons you missed. Over about 90 minutes of gameplay, players learn five key money secrets, which include "Save for when things go sideways" and "Pay yourself first." They also help friends around campus tackle crucial money decisions such as buying or leasing a car, finding an affordable living situation, and building a budget.

Much of the advice, which the game saves for you in a downloadable financial playbook, comes from Invesco Global Market Strategist Brian Levitt, but the game seeks to deliver the information without making players feel like they're eating their peas. "We couldn't present it in the same way we presented it to a financial advisor," says Emily Pachuta, chief marketing and analytics officer for the Americas at Invesco. "We had to be contextually relevant. The game is structured around money dilemmas students are facing."

According to Invesco's research, they're dilemmas that students could be underprepared to deal with. Of the students the firm polled, "Almost 9 in 10 hadn't participated in a noncredit financial program," Pachuta says. "And 62% were interested in learning more about how to manage their money."

That certainly tracks with this writer's personal experience. I didn't receive any financial education in college. Before that, a unit on balancing a checkbook was all I'd received in 13 years of New Jersey public schooling.

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Having played the game now as a, ahem, seasoned financial journalist, I found that most of the lessons the game has to offer are concepts I've written about a dozen times. Still, I tried to approach the game with an eye to what I would have benefited from most during my days on campus.

Here are the three lessons that stuck out as particularly useful given the missteps I made early in my financial journey.

1. Invest early

By the time I got to college, I had banked a modest amount of savings from summers working as a lifeguard. I then supplemented those funds with money I earned from part-time jobs that included, at various points, warehouse work, waiting tables, and copy editing the school newspaper. It wasn't until I landed my first real job writing for a financial magazine that I thought about putting any of that money toward my future.

That likely cost me. As the game's characters illustrate, by not putting even a small amount of money away, I was theoretically missing out on years of compounding growth that could have allowed those modest contributions to bloom into a larger amount of money over time.

From September 2009 (my first month of college) through the end of last month, an investment tracking the S&P 500 would have landed me a total return of nearly 466%. That means that for every $1,000 I didn't invest back then, I've missed out on what could be about $5,600 in my account today.

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2. Manage credit wisely

Despite plenty of come-ons from credit card companies on campus, I was all debit, all the time in college and for several years after graduation. That's because I hated the idea of being in debt and was terrified that I'd let my spending get out of control. In one sense, my aversion to credit cards helped me avoid some of their common pitfalls, as outlined in the game. Your debt can be hard to tackle if you let it pile up too much, one module points out, and running up a balance can hurt your credit score.

But my aversion to credit cards' risks also meant that I was missing out on their potential benefits. "A lot of people think that having any kind of debt means that you suck at money. But that isn't true," it says in the playbook. "In fact, debt can work for you if you play the game right."

Compared with debit cards, credit cards come with stiffer fraud protections and more flexibility when it comes to paying for purchases. Using a credit card responsibly — by not overspending and dutifully paying down my balance every month — would have allowed the college version of me to build my credit score.

And according to the Invesco playbook, it didn't have to be all or nothing. Recurring purchases that fit within my budget or expensive essentials that needed to be paid off over time would have been candidates for credit. To keep myself from losing track of spending, spontaneous purchases or nonessentials that weren't in the budget could have been kept on my debit card.  

3. Carefully consider who you do business with

One of the larger themes of the game is that being good with your money means making considered, informed decisions about what institutions you do business with — a lesson I learned the hard way more than once.

When it came to choosing a bank, for instance, I went with the one that had the most ATMs on campus, including one in the lobby of my dorm. But in basing my choice on (a now somewhat arcane) convenience, I was ignoring a litany of other factors that could impact my finances.

In choosing where to stash my money, I could have considered everything I wanted from a bank, such as great mobile banking features and robust safeguards such as spending trackers and identity theft monitoring.  I could have used a trusted site to make sure I was avoiding pesky fees, such as monthly, minimum balance, ATM, and overdraft charges.

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The same concept applies to choosing a job among multiple offers, a decision that the playbook posits should come down to more than the number on your paycheck. "Don't just assume the highest salary is the best," players are told. Off the bat, for instance, a job with a lower salary may offer more attractive benefits, such as a generous 401(k) match or excellent and inexpensive health insurance.

Think down the line, too — something I failed to do in my haste to lock down a gig that would allow me to keep living anywhere that wasn't my parents' spare bedroom in New Jersey. Some jobs may offer training or pay for tuition that will allow you to build your skills. And while some gigs may come with a smaller paycheck to start, they may offer a clearer, faster trajectory for career advancement than the job paying more up front.

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