Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure and The Office Solution

Normally, I don't comment much. The work of GRS speaks for itself. However, this time I have to chuck in my tuppence. I love the idea of this game, especially since there's an online version. This is the way to teach children about fiscal responsibility in a way they can understand. I wish I'd had this when I was young! Learning the hard way was difficult!
I also wanted to comment on the leasing an office. I admit, I've toyed with this one. Prices here locally are about equal to what he pays, so he did make a nice frugal choice. I too have trouble separating home life from work life, and have longed for an office where I'd walk in with a briefcase full of my WIP, and leave with plans for a bit of reading or gardening. With the benefit of a tax deduction, it's almost worth it. Perhaps there's an author or two who'd like to share?
Please keep reading below.

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The Great Piggy Bank Adventure

Posted: 28 May 2009 05:00 AM PDT

"If we're going to have a free-market capitalist society, we've got to give people the tools to not be victims" — John Cammack, T. Rowe Price

I get a lot of e-mail from PR firms. I ignore most of it, but occasionally something stands out. One recent message invited me to make a trip to Orlando for the debut of The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, a new financial literacy exhibit at Walt Disney's EPCOT Center.

At first, I was skeptical of the offer. As I've mentioned before, I'm wary of crossing the line to publishing advertorials. But after verifying that there were no expectations of coverage at GRS, I agreed to attend the launch. I'm a huge advocate of financial education, and this seemed promising.

"If I like the game, I'll write about it," I told Kris before we left. "But if I don't, I won't."

I liked the game.

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure
The Great Piggy Bank Adventure is located in the Innoventions pavilion at EPCOT. Innoventions features exhibits that explore the practical applications of technology in everyday life. Each exhibit features a corporate sponsor. (Waste Management sponsors a recycling exhibit, Liberty Mutual sponsors a fire-prevention exhibit, etc.) The Great Piggy Bank Adventure is sponsored by T. Rowe Price, one of the "big three" no-load mutual fund companies, and a long-time supporter of financial literacy.

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure features five stations, each of which allows kids to play on their own, or work as a team with other kids or adults. (We saw lots of parents and grandparents joining the fun.)

Setting goals
You start The Great Piggy Bank Adventure by interacting with P.I.G. (your Personal Investment Guide) via a touchscreen video monitor. This animated porker asks you to set a savings goal (vacation, college, retirement, etc.), after which you open a drawer containing a physical piggy bank. This is a clever move on the designers' part; people seemed to love carrying around their pigs.

Saving and spending
You carry your pig to the second station, place him inside a cubbyhole, and then play the first of a series of three videogames. The initial game explores the notions of saving and spending. Coins (representing your "income" from allowances, etc.) fall from the top of the screen, bouncing down from seesaw to seesaw before dropping into buckets at the bottom. These buckets contain labels like "outfits", "mp3s", and "savings". Your goal is to direct as much money as possible into savings.

Meanwhile, your nemesis — the Big Bad Wolf — sneaks in and switches the buckets. The money you thought you were routing to savings might end up in the "outfits" bucket instead. You have to do your best to avoid the unexpected. When the game is finished, your physical pig appears on the other of the game console, "filled" with the virtual money you saved.

The next game addresses inflation. (Inflation! In a children's game!) Your pig climbs into a hot-air balloon, which you pilot around the screen, rising and falling with the air currents. As you move, you collect coins — but you have to work quickly. Again the wolf is your nemesis, and he's decreasing your purchasing power with his evil coin-shrinking machine.

When this game is finished, the total you've collected is added to the amount you earned in the first game. You grab your pig and move to the next station.

The final game tackles one of my favorite personal finance concepts: diversification. This is the best of the three games. It's fun and it conveys the concept well.

Your pile of earnings is placed on the floor in the middle of a bedroom. Your goal is to hide the coins around the room: under the bed, in the drawers, behind a picture on the wall, etc. Each location is labeled with a multiplier (x2, x3, x4, etc.) that indicates how much your stash will increase — if it's not stolen.

After a few seconds, the big bad wolf sneaks into the bedroom, cackling gleefully. He looks around and then chooses two spots to steal coins from. After he's left with his loot, your remaining money increases based on the multipliers for each hiding spot. This process occurs three times, and then whatever is left is yours to keep.

Achieving goals
When the diversification game is finished, you pick up your P.I.G. one last time and carry him to the final station. You place him on a platform (from which he is whisked back to the beginning for somebody else to use), and then you receive an evaluation of your progress toward your goal.

I'm sorry to say that Kris and I made multiple attempts to meet financial goals, but always came up short.

Note:As you start the game, you're asked to choose your language, just as you can for many Disney exhibits. But in this exhibit, you can choose pig latin, which Kris and I found hilarious: iversificationday!

Behind the Scenes
During the opening ceremony, I spoke with several representatives from T. Rowe Price and Disney. In fact, during our first pass through the game, Kris and I were accompanied by Stuart Ritter (a T. Rowe Price assistant vice president as well as a certified financial planner), who talked to us about the process of developing The Great Piggy Bank Adventure.

"How did you decide to do this?" I asked.

"Disney reached out to us and asked if we had a story we wanted to tell," Ritter said. "That was over three years ago. We had to sit down and decide what fundamental financial concepts we wanted to convey to an audience that was between 8 and 14 years old."

Ritter's colleague, Edward Giltenan, chimed in. "The idea of investing is not just to make money. How much you save has a much bigger impact than anything else. What you invest in isn't as important as that you invest. Everything matters, but some things matter more. One thing that will always always affect your outcomes is saving more — and that's something you can control."

Ritter and Giltenan explained that the goal of T. Rowe Price was to produce a game that would introduce children to these concepts, and to spur conversation between kids and parents.

"Did T. Rowe Price actually design the game?" I asked.

"No," said Ritter. "It was a collaborative process. Once we understood the concepts of the story, we began to work with the Disney Imagineers to figure out a way to convey these ideas."

To learn more about the design process, I spoke with Anne Kelly, the Walt Disney Imagineer who led this project. Kelly, who trained under Randy Pausch, explained how her group tried to convey complex subjects like inflation and diversification.

"We tried to follow the fun," Kelly said. "We asked ourselves how we could take an abstract concept like money and make it tangible and hands-on. For example, the wolf represents something different in each game. In the savings game, he stands for impulse purchases. In the inflation game, he's, well, inflation. And in the diversification game, the wolf represents risk."

I've encountered a lot of financial education products, but, to be honest, most of them seem rather lame. That's not the case with The Great Piggy Bank Adventure. I think that T. Rowe Price and Disney have done an excellent job of introducing complicated subjects in a way that makes sense. However, I'm not sure they've reached their target audience. Over two days at EPCOT, Kris and I had a chance to watch many families play the game. Few of these families contained the targeted 8-14 year olds. Instead, the game appealed to younger kids. (These kids loved carrying their pigs.)

While these children are too young to understand the concepts explored in The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, Kris and I did observe an interesting side-effect. As the parents helped their youngsters play, the adults were gleaning information. (The diversification game, especially, seemed to cause some flashes of insight.)

"So is the game just a big pitch for T. Rowe Price?" our friends asked us at brunch last weekend. They were skeptical of the concept, just as we had been at first. "Are they just trying to get parents to buy T. Rowe Price products?"

"Actually, no," said Kris. "In fact, I don't remember seeing much about T. Rowe Price at all."

"There's a little bit of branding here and there," I said, "but really it's innocuous. You know how much we hate advertising. But we actually thought Disney should have been selling T. Rowe Price piggy banks or something."

"Yeah," Kris said. "EPCOT is filled with so much other merchandise. It would have been good to see kids buying a T. Rowe Price piggy bank instead of mouse ears or Goofy shirts. They're missing a huge opportunity there. People who played the game loved carrying around their pigs!"

I had some trepidation about making this trip. I don't want to cross the line to advertorials. Ultimately, I had to ask myself: "How would I have felt about this exhibit if I had stumbled upon it at random during a trip to EPCOT made at my own expense?" The answer to that is easy: I would have been delighted to find a bastion of financial common sense in the midst of this merchandising machine, and I would surely have written about it.

For more info on this new exhibit:

If you plan to be at EPCOT this summer, head over to Innoventions and check out The Great Piggy Bank Adventure!

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Un-Broke: What You Need to Know About Money

Posted: 27 May 2009 05:30 PM PDT

I don't watch much television; I'm more of a books and magazines and newspapers kind of guy. But I'll make an exception this Friday. ABC will be broadcasting a special entitled Un-Broke: What You Need to Know About Money. According to the website:

Schools teach us almost everything, but not "Money 101." For the basics on finance, turn to UN-BROKE: What You Need to Know About Money. It's an unconventional look at the fundamentals of everyday finance with all the facts about credit cards, mortgages, stocks and bonds, investing and 401(k)'s, in a fresh new format combining information and humor. The one-hour special airs FRIDAY, MAY 29 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.

The special's take on basic money sense includes:

  • Will Smith, who gets down to basics with a boardroom full of corporate finance executives.
  • Samuel L. Jackson, who appears as a bestselling author of self-help books and who is "Broke as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore!"
  • The Jonas Brothers, who teach screaming teenage girls the mysteries of the stock market.
  • Seth Green, who explains the fundamentals of a smart mortgage from his "crib".
  • Cedric the Entertainer, who talks back to credit cards.
  • Christian Slater and Rosario Dawson, who visit an office workplace to explain the importance of investing in a 401(k) retirement plan.
  • The E*Trade Babies, who meet host Mellody Hobson for an online chat from their high chairs.

Here's a preview video:

There's some good info there, but the video seems a little, I don't know, frantic to me. But who knows? If the message of fiscal responsibility can reach a few more people, it's all good.

Update: Rumor has it that some folks will be watching this and commenting via Twitter using the #unbroketv hashtag.

[Thanks to Tyler K. and Mrs. Micah for the tip!]

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Office Space: Why I Rented a Place to Write

Posted: 27 May 2009 11:00 AM PDT

I recently leased office space for Get Rich Slowly.

For about a year, I'd been working out of an office I'd created in one of our spare bedrooms. This seemed like an ideal solution: I was able to work from home (with my cat companions!) while utilizing empty space.

In reality, this arrangement proved a blessing and a curse. Yes, it was convenient to have a home office. But I also found that the boundaries between Work and non-Work began to blur. I was working all the time. I wrote 10, 12, 18 hours a day — nearly every day. I love my work, but still…I had created a lifestyle that was anything but "rich".

Last winter, Kris and I discussed the possibility of finding a writing space for me, but we never followed through. I thought it was crazy to spend a few hundred dollars per month to rent an office when we had plenty of room at home. It felt like a poor financial decision. So I continued to work long hours. This website consumed my life.

In February and March, I did a lot of soul-searching. I began to study George Kinder's notion of "life planning" and to develop my own philosophy about the stages of personal finance. I realized that although keeping a home office made me richer financially, it actually made me poorer in every other sense.

So, at the end of March, I gave in to my gut, and I leased a small office in a commercial building at the top of the hill. It was a mental struggle to move stuff up to the new space. I felt like I was kicking a grown child out of the house. (Part of the process was fun though: I used a little red wagon to haul books, and I carried a couple of the office chairs on my shoulders.)

Hard at work in my new office. I look old! Note the piggy bank watching over me.

I've been in the new office for two months now, and I have to say: this is one of the best decisions I've ever made. Yes, I'm spending $335 a month for 145 square feet of office space, but it's a business expense. (Translation: I'm not losing the entire $335 from my personal bottom-line.) Better yet, I'm much more productive here. When I come to the office, I come to work. I've created physical and mental space by moving out of the house.

Meanwhile, I've (mostly) been able to reclaim my time at home for other activities: reading, gardening, spending time with my wife. (I've done more pleasure reading in the past month than I had during the entire previous year, I think.) My life is much richer for having made this choice.

It's not always possible to know the outcome of a financial decision before you make it. Sometimes the option that looks best on paper is actually a poor choice. And sometimes it makes sense to spend a little extra money to obtain peace of mind.

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Anne D said...

If only we weren't on the opposite ends of town, Lena!

The concept of a 'real' workspace for writing that is away from the house is one I've contemplated, too. I much too easily can convince myself to get involved with other household things and put off writing - I can't do that in the middle of an office!

Lena Austin said...

M'dear, we could possibly find something in Arlington or Southside that would be in the middle. LOL!

One of my biggest problems is that without my leaving the house wearing "business" clothes, my family tends to think I'm available for whatever housewifery needs doing.

Anne D said...

Very true - can you get a XXXX today for me? And xxx happens to be the opposite side of town I'm on :)

We really should look into it, maybe try find a 3rd or 4th author.

I'll even buy the coffee maker!!

Lena Austin said...

You may have a deal, Anne. I really need a place to go that "feels" enough like work to motivate me and get away from the distractions of home and family.

Perhaps we should look into an author co-op!

Anne D said...

Funny you should say that - I was thinking about that place in NY? was it? LOFT? or something like that. This lovely big space where you could come in and commandeer a 'cubical' space for the day/afternoon/week etc. (I could have that all wrong btw, but for the life of me I can't think what blog I originally saw the concept on).

Not saying we'd want to go that far, but it is an idea.

Lena Austin said...

We'd have to form a major deal or something so no one would ever be left holding the bag for the entire rent because the partners ran out on them.

Would I personally love a space away from home where I could walk in with a briefcase and walk out at the end of the day with a feeling of accomplishment instead of frustration? You bet!

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