The Oregon Trail Guide to Personal Finance: What Happens Next?

(Article by Jana from the Daily Money Shot – hope you like the flashback as much as I did! ;))

As a child of the 80s, I can’t help but have an affinity for The Oregon Trail (the game, not the actual Oregon Trail. Though I do have mad respect for the pioneers who made that trek. That’s some badassery right there). I mean, who doesn’t love a good case of cholera or hunting buffalo to get their blood pumping? I know I do.

But did you also know that while we were fording the river, trading for oxen, and buying bullets, we were also learning about personal finance? It’s true.

If you don’t believe me, you can check out my series “The Oregon Trail Guide to Personal Finance.” But I’m not here to promote that (even though it’s really awesome and you totally need to read it). No. I’m here to tell you that once the journey ends, there’s still a long way to go.

I’ve always wondered what happened to the settlers at the end of the game. I mean, you get to Oregon and then…what? What do they do? Where do they live? How do they earn money? Those kinds of things. Fortunately, the clever folks who created The Oregon Trail have a follow up game that helps me answer those questions. And, wouldn’t you know, I’ve learned a few more financial lessons from that (I swear, these people are evil geniuses).

Here’s a sample:

Take care of your necessities first

In the game, you arrive at a completely empty plot of land save for trees, rocks, and the occasional buffalo skull. In order to build on it, you first need to clear the land. Once the land is cleared, you can start building. But what to build first?

That’s a good question, and the answer is simple: Take care of your necessities. Find a water source. Chop down trees and build a shelter. Start a fire with some of the logs. Hunt a squirrel or rabbit or find some nonpoisonous berries to eat. Cover the basics. Because if you don’t secure what you need to survive, it’s almost impossible to do anything else like raise animals or harvest crops.

Your money works the same way. When you get paid, pay your necessities first. Pay for your housing if you still have to. Set aside money for food and transportation. Make sure you have enough to pay for electricity (unless you live in a completely “green” house or are Amish – then you can forget about that payment). If you need medication to survive, budget for that as well. Once those are taken care of, you’re pretty much good to go. Then you can take what’s left over and use that for the stuff you want.

Have a logical plan

It’s easy to look at the empty plot of land and just start haphazardly building stuff. A tavern, a general store, a hunting lodge, a bunch of houses, maybe a farm; those all seem like a good idea for a town. I mean, that’s totally the kind of town l’d like to live in. But there has to be an orderly plan for where you place those things. For instance, it’s probably not a good idea to put the hunting lodge next to the tavern. That could get dangerous.

Sounds kind of like a budget. Income is just like that empty plot of land. If you don’t have a plan for how to spend that money, you’re just going to spend it on whatever you want without really knowing where that money goes. You’ll spend in an illogical way that makes no sense and could cause a potentially dangerous situation, like massive debt or a missing big financial deadline or opportunity.

Work hard but remember to rest

The game is really big on monitoring your energy. Each task that you perform whether it’s collecting money from the stores or building a storage shed or harvesting crops, they all require you to use energy. When your energy meter runs out, you can’t perform another task until it resets (and your “spouse” even reminds you that your energy meter is empty and you can’t do anything else. Thanks, nagging spouse). Sometimes you’ll work really hard and get an energy bonus but mostly the work just depletes what you have stored up.

When you’re trying to build a successful town, it’s hard and sometimes painful to rest; you want to keep working and working until you have nothing left to give. It’s the quickest way to be profitable, working around the clock, having our hands busy constantly. But that’s also an easy way to burn out and make some potentially unpleasant mistakes (like forgetting to craft some medicine and your pioneer dies. Oops).

Whether you are self-employed, work for someone else, work in the home, or have some other work situation, it’s important that you allow yourself to take a day off. Resting boosts your ability to perform at the top of your game. Resting allows you to recover, prevents you from burning out and helps you avoid mistakes. Resting gives you a mental break (and often, during your rest, you’ll find a solution to a problem that had been nagging you). Resting affords you the time to be proud of your accomplishments. And most importantly, resting gives you the opportunity to connect with your family and friends, which is more important than anything.

Be kind to your neighbors

One way to build up your town and earn rewards is to visit neighboring towns and help the townspeople with their chores. You get rewarded in little hearts that allow you to obtain a bonus trip to the prospecting field (where you get to blow up rocks with dynamite, which is awesome.) and you get visitors to your town, allowing your businesses to be more profitable. It also helps to build relationships, so in the event of a flood or stampeding buffalo/etc, you can get some help rebuilding your broken town. Everyone wins!

In real life, the game’s neighbors are our networks. It’s important to have good, solid relationships with your family, friends, and your community. Because in the event of a tragedy or unemployment or starting a new business, these are the people that you will turn to for help. They’re the ones who will come to your aid and support you. The nicer and more helpful you are to people, the broader your network becomes. And honestly? You never know what kind of opportunity can arise as a result of that network.

I love games that make me think (yes, I’m a huge nerd), particularly games that make me think about money. Because, in addition to the lessons learned here, there’s the whole earning, budgeting and spending money element to the game that makes it even more challenging.

But that’s a whole different post.

Okay, Sexy readers. What hidden financial lessons could you find from your favorite game?

Jana used to run the personal finance blog, Daily Money Shot, where she talks about money (but not the boring parts). She’s also a freelance writer and founder of the blogger mentoring program, Bloggers Helping Bloggers, where I (J. Money) is one of her fabulous mentors and helpers in revamping the program. She’s thrilled to be guest posting here!

(Photo credit: redheaded_pirate)

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  1. AverageJoe December 20, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    Great analogy, Jana! I read a great book about managing energy called The Power of Full Engagement. They agree completely with you: people managing time are beaten by those who can manage energy to get more done.

    I wouldn’t have lived long on the Oregon Trail. No Waffle House.

  2. Brian December 20, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Grand Theft Auto taught me that if I kill prostitutes I can take their money…. Not really sure this is a good personal finance lesson though….

    Also now I am going to have to find a free version of Oregon Trail to play on the internet…. man that game was so addictive!

  3. Jana @ Daily Money Shot December 20, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    Joe, I read that book. Or at least I tried to. But that point is a good one. You need to make sure to manage your energy because if you have none, you can have all the time in the world and you’ll still get nothing done. I don’t even know if that comment makes sense.

    Brian, if you have in iPad or iPhone, you can download the app for free. I’m not sure if there’s a decent free web version. But you’re right. It’s addictive!

  4. J. Money December 20, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    Haha…. that’s awesome, Brian – a nice lesson to keep in mind for sure ;)

    Thanks much for the guest post today, Jana! You’re always coming up with something creative over there – I love it.

  5. Rod J Rogers December 20, 2012 at 10:10 AM

    Age of Empires, played by my teenage son, was similar to Oregon Trail in that you had to build up the basic supplies in order to be able to build your empire. Just as in life, doing the small things right makes a big difference in your overall success.

  6. Joanna @ Our Freaking Budget December 20, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    I played Oregon Trail in elementary school, and then moved on to The Sims in middle school. Rather than work hard to get more money for my Sim, I always entered the money cheat code so I’d have as much moolah as I wanted. Haha, and I think that’s the mentality for a lot of us today. We all just need to get back to Oregon Trail days and focus on hard work and prioritizing our necessities. Great post!

  7. daveM December 20, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    I spend a lot of time daily at my work. I make sure that I get out for a good long walk each day to allow my mind to relax and see other things besides a screen and charts and a keyboard. The mental break, to me, is most necessary. A time to reflect and recharge the mental battery.

  8. Christopher @ This that and the MBA December 20, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    Oh no Chris has died of dysentery… :-) loved that game.

    I always went at the grueling pace…needless to say i was always the only one left at the end.

  9. Greg@ClubThrifty December 20, 2012 at 12:08 PM

    I loved that game! I remember playing it on the old Apple computers with all the graphics and words in green. It was awesome!

    This is actually a great analogy. Buy your necessities first. Then, worry about the rest. So true.

  10. Jana @ Daily Money Shot December 20, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    Rod, I agree with you. We need to take baby steps and eventually, those baby steps will add up to big things.

    Joanna, I loved the Sims. I would play it for hours, especially once they started with the expansion packs. But I did just the opposite. I would force them to go to work even when they didn’t want to; I never had the incentive to look up cheat codes. And I won’t even tell you what my husband did to those poor Sims…

    Dave, walking is so important. I work from home and my dogs remind me when I need to get up and take a break. They’re the best employees!

    Chris, I am sorry to hear about your misfortune :) It is a great game, though. I never went at the grueling pace but I always picked the poorest profession. Not sure why.

    Greg, I loved the terrible graphics and green color, too. The new version is really fun, though.

  11. Financial Black Sheep December 20, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    HAHA Oregon trail and the sims; I loved both! Oregon trial I wouldn’t trade items until I got the best price and only if I needed to. With the Sims I ended up just building and designing houses most of the time lol. Must be because I grew up with my dad owning a construction company. Besides the jobs were lame, and all you could do with the sims gone was stare at the tv or maid BORING! Now Sim city, that was awesome. You had to design your city, spend within budget, take out small loans just to get you over the rough patch, have multiple income streams… just awesome :)

  12. Edward Antrobus December 20, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    I loved that game. It was all the rage in 4th and 5th grade, dozens of us would huddle around the Apple IIG! Oddly enough, we didn’t have any computers in the classroom in 6th grade. 7th grade, the IT computer game was Family Feud and 8th grade was a little game called Tank Wars. I can’t say that Family Feud had any educational value, but Tank Wars was a great way to understand trigonometry.

  13. December 20, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    Hi Jana. Nice article. Re: “… I mean, you get to Oregon and then…what?” Why of course, you get Oregon-ized!

  14. Christa December 20, 2012 at 4:51 PM

    I’m not sure how to apply this to finance: I always died trying to ford the river. Maybe look before you leap? Or wait until the conditions are right? I’m not sure…cause I never forded successfully!

  15. Jana @ Daily Money Shot December 20, 2012 at 9:06 PM

    FBS, the Sims expansion pack made it so much better. I would get lost in that game for hours on end!

    Edward, I’ve never heard of Tank Wars. Then again, I’m horrible at math so if I did have it available, I’d probably ignore it anyway. Sad. But true.

    Christa, hmmm. You can tie it to personal finance like this: you might encounter a weakness in your spending or your budget, one that always gives you a hard time, and you constantly fail at it. The best solution is to avoid it altogether or find a work around (instead of fording, take a ferry. Just make sure you have the money saved at all times). Maybe that works?

  16. J. Money December 22, 2012 at 1:26 PM

    Haha, y’all are too funny… These made me laugh :) Happy holidays everyone! Hope you get some good game-playing squeezed in there!