The Power of Play

Want to save more? Get control of your finances? It's time to play.

I’m often asked what people can do to save more, to spend less, or to otherwise make changes to their day-to-day finances, and my response is often met with surprise.

I advise my clients to do the following: learn what play is for you and your family and focus on those activities. If you do that, you’ll naturally spend less in other areas.  

The response I often get is the one that’s on your face right now. Really? Play? That’s what’s going to make a difference?


Still with me? Good. I’ll explain. It comes down to the difference between pleasure and happiness. One is short-term and the other is longer-lasting.  

So, let’s get started defining what we’re talking about here.

What is play?

My favorite research regarding play comes from Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play. He’s got a great TED talk and a wonderful book on the topic as well. To quote Dr. Brown, “The opposite of play isn’t work. The opposite of play is depression.”

In his research, Dr. Brown identified seven “properties of play,” which include the following (paraphrased):

  • Apparently purposeless — Just done for the sake of playing.
  • Voluntary — Just because you want to do it, not because you have to do it.
  • Inherently attractive — It’s not hard to get yourself up and moving for the experience. If you want to get me to run or lift weights that’s work, but tennis is play.  
  • Able to lose track of time — Ever look up while doing something and it felt like 30 minutes but it was two hours? That’s play.
  • Able to be silly, less self-conscious — Where can you be silly and let go of yourself a little?
  • Ability to create and improvise — We can bend the rules and explore, changing things and trying new situations.
  • Continuation desire — We look for ways to keep the fun going.  (A great example of this is bears in the wild who are learning to fight with each other. If a big bear pins another one, he doesn’t stand up, roar and walk away. He’ll smack the bear he beat, and then run away, encouraging the game to continue).

How does play save you money?

In every situation I’ve seen with clients where they identify a play behavior and commit to exploring that in their lives, we’ve seen a change in their financial situation. While some play can be rather expensive — think sailing or golf — when a conscious commitment to playing and exploring that activity is made, spending tends to decrease in other areas.  

Why does this happen? I think it may be partly a conscious effort by that person to reduce expenses in order to create funds to spend on their play activity, but I think it’s also partly unconscious, in that they don’t feel the need to spend as much because they are more fulfilled in their daily lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m far more likely to make poor choices — spending, eating, or otherwise — when I’m running low on my overall energy levels. If play is the charging station for those energy banks, it makes sense to make it a priority.

What is play for your loved ones?

My kids are young (7 and 3) and lately my 7-year-old has taken to asking us to play Go Fish almost every night. I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy doing this simple thing, and then I started to think about our play criteria. Go Fish meets most of the play criteria for all of us and leads to a great family experience.  

That said, not everything that is play for one family member will work for others. For me and the kids the playground is play, but for my wife it’s often more along the lines of a panic attack as she’s sure they’re going to fall off of something. For she and the kids, art projects are huge sources of play, but for me they don’t trigger the same benefits internally.  

Play and travel spending

Brene Brown talks about how thinking about play and their vacations changed the way their family traveled. For so many of us, going to visit “The Mouse” in Orlando is a regular trip, but for how many of us is that really play, including our kids?  Brene Brown and her family looked at the list and found that where they were all able to play was in hiking, swimming and playing cards.  

If you think about your family’s sources of play and built a trip around those, don’t you think it might be less expensive than some of the trips you’ve been doing? Even if it’s more expensive, can you find ways to save in the short-term to cover the difference and do something truly restorative? One of the best ways I know to boost one’s overall mood and happiness is to remember those happy events that you’ve had, alone and with loved ones. This is yet another reason why spending on experiences is better than spending on things!

The difference between pleasure and happiness

“Happiness that depends mainly on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it’s there, the next day it may not be.” — the Dalai Lama
I’ve seen enough in my client families (and in my own) to know that the way we spend money is pretty closely related to our feelings and emotions, and more often tied to negative emotions than positive ones. Our wallets and credit cards are an easy-to-access way to get a simple serotonin hit in our brains. Marketers (particularly software companies) are skilled at making it easy to spend more than we intended.  

Now for the oversimplified brain chemistry section.

Just yesterday I bought a big box of cookies at Rouses. They were (and still are) delicious, but that was a choice about pleasure, not about happiness. Will I be happier if I eat half of that box of cookies today? Nope. Will I have more pleasure? You bet.  
When we eat half a box of cookies, or shop online, or explore social media, we’re getting little hits of dopamine in our brain.  It works a little bit at a time, and gives an instant pleasure response, but then we find ourselves needing to get more and more of it over time.  
Serotonin is different. Serotonin is more of a constant source of happiness.

Best Sources of Serotonin:

  • Time with good friends/family (Positive relationships)
  • Sunlight
  • Exercise
  • Remembering happy events

Think about that short list, and about play. I think it’s one of the things that makes New Orleans such a wonderful place to live.  For many of us, going to parades, hosting crawfish boils and heading out to great restaurants involve important things from that short list. Granted, maybe we don’t do so well on the exercise part, but on the spending time with friends and family, reminiscing about fun times, and even being outside, I think we do a pretty good job with all of those things.  

My hope for those of you that have made it this far is that you will continue to do those things and get really conscious about the other things that make up play for you and those closest to you so you can nurture more of that in your life. My bet is that you’ll end up spending the same amount (or possibly less) than you are now, and you’ll feel much better about what you’re doing than you are currently.  
And that is worth celebrating.

H. Jude Boudreaux is a partner/senior financial planner with The Planning Center in New Orleans, a fee-only financial planning firm. While his work meets six of the seven play criteria, his other favorite play activities are traveling with his family, baking with his kids, playing tennis, and taking walks in the neighborhood