What Starcraft Can Teach Us about Personal Finance

Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games like Starcraft require deftly managing income, output, and attention. These three resources change priority throughout the game. Personal finance works the same way, requiring us to manage income, spending, and attention, to attain financial success.

More specifically, our chances of success in Starcraft depend on our harvesting rate, conversion of resources to units, and optimal application of those units to defense and expansion. Note that I said “chances for success”, not just “success”. We can do everything right, and still lose. We can do everything wrong, and still win. Knowledgeable and persistent optimization of our opportunities helps us make the most of what chance offers us. Here, then, are five personal financial management lessons to garner from Starcraft.

1. Time Scales Linearly; Resources Scale Exponentially.

When a Starcraft game begins, we land in our initial base, with a bunch of resources (crystals and gas) around us. However, we only start with a few harvesters. We begin to gather crystals, and our resources trickle in. Within 20 seconds, we have enough resources to choose what we want to build first. If we choose to start a unit or a new building, we use up our resources, and need to wait another 20 seconds to choose again. However, if we build another harvester, then that harvester (upon completion) will join the group, and our rate of resource attainment goes up. Players may double or triple the number of harvesters they employ in the first few minutes of the game, before shifting the majority of player attention to base formation, unit production, and tech development.

Players who do not build additional harvesters may pump out a couple of units or buildings before the players who do, but soon fall hopelessly behind once other players can produce two to three times as much after a few minutes. This disadvantage scales throughout the game, as the other players will explore and expand more quickly. Soon the resource harvesting rate grows to a massive difference between players who built additional harvesters, and those who didn’t. The magnitude of difference is so great, that even a large gift of resources partway through the game can make only a temporary impact for the struggling player, at best.

Our finances work the same way. Our “harvesting rate” is our savings rate i.e. the difference between what we earn, and what we spend. A regular paycheck ensures we can buy what we want and need for that time period. Only by increasing our earnings and/or decreasing our expenses, can we increase our harvesting rate. The longer it takes to increase our harvesting rate, the more opportunity we allow for outside factors to impact our game. One-time money like earning overtime pay or receiving an inheritance may temporarily allow for purchases we couldn’t have otherwise made, but they will have little impact over the course of the game unless we improve our harvesting rate.

Is there such a thing as too high of a savings rate? Sure, in the context of optimally meeting our needs. If we do nothing but pump out harvesters, our game of Starcraft will end pretty quickly when the first wave of attackers arrives. If we depend on our car to drive to work, we need to spend the requisite money and time on the maintenance the car needs, lest the car break down, and threaten our job. If we buy terrible food to save money, then end up spending more money and/or time on our troubled health, we lose ground.

2. Seek Out New Resources Before Exhausting Current Resources.

At some point, players end up harvesting all of the crystals and gas at their main, starting bases. Long before that, players need to explore the surrounding territory and set up their first expansion base. In Starcraft (and in personal finance), resource discovery and development is as important as harvesting. If we wait until our first base’s resources run out before we expand, we significantly slow our expansion (from the sudden shortage of income), and leave ourselves vulnerable to outside attack. Moreover, our defensive strategy changes as the size of our bases grow, and as new crystal and gas sources take greater importance over the old sources.

People often base their personal finance strategy on their starting spot, and that is a fundamental mistake. Jobs change, life circumstances change, opportunities change. It doesn’t matter if the changes are positive or negative. It matters that we keep abreast of these changes, that we understand how and why we get paid for the work we do (which may not match up with what we’re told), and that we don’t just assume things will keep going the way they have always gone. We don’t need paranoia that everything could blow up in our face. We simply need vigilance for both dangers and opportunities, even if we don’t want either one.

3. Resource Management is About Flow, Not Choices.

With limited time to organize and optimize, players do best in Starcraft by feeling their way through a flow of decisions, and not agonizing over every little choice. Any given decision can certainly impact outcome, but we don’t make these choices in a vacuum. Did we choose the right counter-unit to an opponent’s attacking force? No? Then we may need to make more units to compensate. Did a defensive battle go exceedingly well? We may choose to shift our strategy toward offense, and take advantage of our momentum, or expand earlier than we planned.

Maybe we didn’t get the best deal on the computer we bought, or maybe we got more than we anticipated on our most recent paycheck. Overall, the accumulation of our choices make a greater impact on our finances than any one of most of our decisions. Moreover, spending too much time and effort on smaller decisions can take away resources from the larger decisions that would benefit us to a greater degree.

4. We Always Choose Between Micromanagement and Macromanagement.

In Starcraft, players begin with only a few harvesters and a main building. As players accumulate more troops and structures, players choose how to manage everything as effectively as they can. Letting units battle as automatons when facing opponents may allow the player to focus attention on a macromanagement objective, such as developing an expansion base. By contrast, controlling a group of defenders to focus their weapons on particular attackers within an opponent’s force could lead to a better, micromanaged outcome, saving resources. Choosing when to “micro” and when to “macro” contributes greatly to whether or not a player wins the game. Different players may excel at micro- or macromanagement, and will do better by playing to their strengths, but successful Starcraft play requires both types of management.

Ever heard of something akin to the phrase, “climbing over dollars to save pennies”? That’s resource management done wrong. If we drive across town to save ten cents a gallon on gasoline, and we burn up more gas to get to the remote gas station than we saved by buying the gas there (not to mention the time we wasted traveling there), we messed up our micromanagement. If we buy a huge bag of apples at half price, but more than half of the apples go bad because we can’t use that many before they rot, we made a macromanagement error. Some financial opportunities are good, but simply not good for us at a given time or place.

We see this hold true in the world of investments. Less than 10% of managed funds outperform index funds in the long term (more than several years), so the vast majority of us will earn more money by putting our savings into the lowest-cost index funds we can find. No need to micro this decision. Our byzantine Medicare system sees the opposite for drug plans, with so many choices that offer differing discounts that change every year on particular medications. Anything less than careful micromanagement of plan details can yield disastrous results for people who depend on particular medications.

We need both micromanagement and macromanagement to succeed; the key is knowing which one takes precedence for a given situation. Micromanagement spends more time, and macromanagement spends more resources. If we have significantly more of one over the other, we may choose the greater, or we may choose the one that will potentially give us better results…or we may choose the one we enjoy the most. The intangible joy of using our favorite resource management skill may well outweigh the financial benefit of an optimal approach. Coupons may or may not make a major impact when we go shopping, but some people deeply enjoy using them.

5. Scale Changes Optimization.

Let’s get absolutely clear about how scale changes optimization, because this is the biggest and most common mistake Starcraft players make as they try to improve in the game, and the biggest and most common mistake people make when improving their finances.

As a Starcraft game progresses, growing our harvesting rate can make particular choices more or less beneficial. Micromanaging a battle may provide better results in the beginning, when we only have a few units to command. Later in the game, we may gain better results macromanaging our unit production and throwing massive numbers of upgraded units at our opponents, simply because we can produce units so much faster. To be sure, some balance between the two approaches will yield the most optimal outcome, but note how spending time on scaling up production often reduces the advantage of micromanagement. Would we rather command ten units with great precision, or send a massive seventy-unit squad to flood an opponent? If we scale our resources to attain the latter, then the reduced time needed to command such a large squad enables us to further snowball toward victory by allowing us to spend our attention elsewhere.

When we start our first job, we may earn very little money. Every bit matters to help our money stretch as far as possible. Discounts on what we purchase, or earning 1.5x or 2x pay for overtime or other bonuses, can make a serious impact for us. As our skills improve, as our earnings grow, and as our savings grow, we make more money with our time. Therefore, spending additional time to save money might not be worth it for us any more. Poorer people often make fun of richer people for being so wasteful. Why spend more on something than you have to? But remember the first lesson: time scales linearly and resources scale exponentially. If saving $20 on a pair of jeans takes a hour of skilled shopping, someone who earns $10 an hour will come out ahead (that’s two extra hours they don’t have to work), while someone who earns $30 an hour will fall behind (they spent an hour saving money that they actually could have earned in just 40 minutes). It’s not financially worth it to a richer person to save money on a purchase if doing so will require more time than those savings are worth.

To be sure, any given situation may not be so straightforward. Maybe we have extra time, but no way to currently make additional money. Maybe we seriously enjoy bargaining. The point stays the same — as our earnings-per-time-period changes i.e. as our earnings scale changes, so does the financial optimization (or lack thereof) of how we spend our time.

We easily commit this mistake, because the skills we develop to make the best use of our lower earnings end up being the very reasons that keep us from making financial progress. As our earnings scale upward (or downward), we must change our optimizations. Starcraft players who end games with thousands of leftover crystals and gas, demonstrate a serious failure to leverage those resources i.e. they didn’t change the optimization of how they played, as the game progressed. When the amount of time we spend bargaining over a cost outweighs the worth of our time, we demonstrate a serious failure to leverage the growing value of our time. We often make this even more difficult, by integrating some of our learned skills into our identity. We’re the prudent shopper. We’re the hard worker. When we conflate who we are with how we succeed, we trap ourselves into winning only by staying at the same scale. We feel that we cannot increase our success unless we destroy who we are (which is true, but not the whole truth), and thus we keep ourselves from scaling.

Endgame.

Scaling in Starcraft reaches limits. Players may reach the hard cap on the number of units they can produce, or exhaust available resources on the game map. More often, players feel the need to act before an opponent does, as the player doesn’t want to run out of time. Personal finance works the same way. We reach the murky intersection of a certain point in our earnings and a certain age, assume a projection of our particular needs and expectations for the remainder of our lives, and name that intersection “financial independence”. Some choose to retire, others choose to continue working, and many additional options and combinations appear. For those who have the opportunity to reach it, financial independence hinges more on expectations than on actual earnings. If we expect to sail our own yacht, that requires significantly more resources than if we expect to go camping, or play video games.

The real challenge with personal finance is that scaling brings minimums. Statistically speaking, about 90% of people in the United States will never even attain the chance for financial independence. High debt, high medical costs, and a host of other challenges can create a personal finance situation that feels like they have one harvester to feed four different bases. The scaling is so shallow, that any progress they make gets inevitably wiped out by the regular events of their lives. A little over 9% of the population will get the opportunities necessary for financial independence, but only part of that 9% will actually attain it. Less than 1% of the population begins immediately with financial independence.

Near the end of the movie Ratatouille, Anton Ego’s monologue reveals a pivotal insight: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” So it is with personal finance, and we love rags-to-riches stories. But those stories stand out precisely for their rarity. Starcraft’s lessons for personal finance can make a tremendous impact, but let’s acknowledge that not many people get a real chance to play. Make the most of the chances you get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s