Timidly, I pulled out my debit card and grimaced as the cashier rung up the purchase. I handed it to her, watching as she swiped it for $42, worried that I’d made a mistake thinking that buying Settlers of Catan at full retail price was a great idea.
I had been introduced to the game at a writer’s retreat and the lightbulb had gone off. This will solve all my problems! (Or at least a few of them.)
I knew my boys, obsessed with the computer game Minecraft — full of middle-earth-style farming, crafting, and building — would love it. In my quest to get the little ones off their screens and, at the same time, not running through the house screaming and wrestling, I had decided that board games were the way to go.
We had all the early childhood favorites: Sorry, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, and of course checkers (Chinese and Western varieties both) and chess. With a job writing about personal finance and too much time obsessing over Wall Street and the mortgage crisis, Monopoly had long since lost its fun. Who wants to pay rent and taxes for entertainment? NOT ME.
Settlers of Catan was perfect; competitive but collaborative, too, not focused on bloody duals like Risk, and a great use of all those little facts gained by playing Minecraft and other Middle Ages-style online games (Runescape and their ilk). I swallowed my objections and took the game home to my eager boys.
Board game as financial strategy
This was not just a ploy to tear my boys away from the screens, but a financial boon. I had been paying $10 a month for a Minecraft server, so my oldest could play with his friends online. I had to field the requests for in-game cash in whatever iProduct game the boys were playing with such regularity that I had begun to use iTunes credit like most parents use dimes and quarters in a jar: they get points for good behavior, which go towards iTunes.
My husband has exercised his parental influence with a Wii and an Xbox, so not only do I get regular requests to buy games but also (oh-my-goodness!) the batteries.
My friend Emily, who has six children and an obsession with Peak Oil, had posted on Facebook that very day. She went to the local Fred Meyer for batteries for post-Christmas fun and had found the battery kiosks bare. “It’s Peak Battery!” she had exclaimed.
For those of us who worry enough about overuse of resources that we cart our kids around on bikes and buy milk in returnable glass bottles, the stark realization of how many batteries we all use was both environmentally terrifying and — wow! — expensive.
I quietly cancelled the Minecraft server and set myself a limit of $10 a month on iTunes. I decided I would buy batteries once every two months and make the boys spend their allowance if they wanted more once those were used up. Instead, board games.
Do you know what? Board games don’t require batteries! Board games don’t have an option for in-game commerce! Board games don’t show ads or prompt you to upgrade to a new version!
Board games take a long time!
The best part about board games is that they take a long, long time. A movie, even if you’re going absolutely cheap with a rental, is over in less than two hours and then the boys are scampering to do something else. But a good round of Settlers of Catan can take four or five hours.
Any mother of many small boys could agree that four or five hours without wrestling or Phineas & Ferb is worth far more than $42. And then! You get to use the game again and again and again.
I spent a lot on that game, and I do admit to being interested in the expansion packs and other similar games (including Dominion and Dungeons & Dragons). But board games, when considered over their lifespan, are downright cheap.
The real problem with movies and cable (which we cancelled a few years ago) and fees for online game memberships and the like is not so much that they recur, but that they recur without your having to think about it. I’ve spent between $20 and well over $100 a month in these sorts of fees in the past (cable really adds up) — not counting batteries!
Having each and every expenditure of a game/expansion pack be a deliberate thing will save me money simply because I have to think about it.
Books are slow, too
The other way I save money on entertainment is a simple rule: we have to read a book out loud together before we can watch the associated movie in the theater. We almost never go to the theater as a result.
The boys are huge fans of this practice, and we’re now on book five of Harry Potter and about a third of the way through The Hobbit. We only started the Harry Potter series after the movie series was well underway, so it’s all at-home viewing for those movies.
As for The Hobbit? Well, books take time, and I’m more than happy to spend an idle Sunday afternoon reading out loud in order for the boys to earn a movie viewing. It’s fully worth the chance at having to spend $30 for a theater matinee.
I’ll happily take bets on whether they’ll sit still for that long apart from bedtime. I know which side I’m placing my wager.