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Funny Money: The 7 Rules of Ridiculously Cheap Gaming

A guy playing video gamesThere are more degrading and addictive forms of entertainment than video games. Like maybe My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, crack, and … huh, did I mention crack?

It’s hard to come up with anything more addictive than gaming. Unfortunately, controlling flashing pixels with your thumbs is depressingly costly when you step back to evaluate all the funds you pour into your habit.

Be honest – did you spring for your giant flat screen because you wanted to see the period detail in Downton Abbey, or to get a better look at your Black Ops II loadouts? Do you opt for high-speed Internet because you get so much work done at home, or because you were sick of lag in Madden showdowns? What made you think that extra $350 that was left in your checking account late last year was better spent on a Wii U than a Roth IRA deposit?

Do you buy your Xbox 360 more unnecessary gifts than you do your significant other?

Don’t answer. It’s rhetorical. Just admit you spend too much on video games. You could save money by abandoning the pastime. Right. And you could save even more by avoiding eating. Let’s forget about such nonsense as quitting gaming and explore ways to do more of it while spending less.

1. Take advantage of GameStop‘s one-week free rental offer.

The used games giant makes so much money because too few people use it as the lending library it tries to be. Thanks to its generous return policy, you can “buy” a used game, then return it within a week for a full refund. With a little diligence, you’ll be able to power through the campaign of most any shooter within that span.

2. Sell, don’t trade

Used game stores may be helpful when it comes to selling used games, but they’re punks when it comes to buying them off you. At best you’ll get $30 in trade-in credit for a game you dropped $60 on – most often you’ll get far less than that – but you can unload the same game on Craigslist or eBay for $40 or more. Don’t sacrifice the convenience and ease of a trade-in for the lucrative action of the open market.

3. Book and game rule

This one not only lowers your gaming costs, but knocks out the guilt that tends to crop up when you spend too much time teabagging fools on Halo maps rather than making progress on your unfinished summer reading list that’s been mocking you since high school. For every game you finish, force yourself to read a book before you allow yourself to start the next one. This may make it tough to keep up with annual Assassin’s Creed releases, but at least you’ll be more productive.

4. Borrow, don’t buy

Your best investment as a gamer would be to befriend a best pal who always has to have the newest, hottest thing. When he gets bored with it, that’s when you come knocking on the door, asking to borrow it for the next few months. If you’ve got no such sucker/pal, always rent and see if you can get your fill of a game before it’s due back before you decide to double down and make a purchase.

5. Never buy new

Used games are almost always significantly cheaper than new ones, and that remains true when taking the premium price of DLC codes into account. Buy used from a reliable source, purchase the code for the extra DLC or online access straight from the company through your console and you’ll subvert the system.

6. Play the waiting game

Finish the games you have before going after new ones. I’ve never met a gamer who wasn’t plagued by a frighteningly large back catalog. Do your best to remain satisfied with what you’ve got. The longer you wait, the cheaper the latest and greatest titles that catch your eye will be.

7. Avoid the free-to-plague

The PC and smartphone scenes are loaded with games that pretend to be free, but are plagued with hidden costs meant to siphon money from your credit card with small purchases that add up the longer you keep playing. Better to part with a larger chunk of cash up front rather than submit to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts misery of microtransactions.

One last thing

Although games are sometimes good investments, most of the time their value plummets steadily in an all-out race to the value bin. With all the money you save on gaming, you’ll be able to buy Friendship is Magic DVDs at will. And maybe even something for your significant other. And by significant other, I don’t mean your PS3. Or maybe I do.

Do you have any helpful tips to make gaming more affordable?

Published or updated on February 8, 2013

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Chris K. says:

    What about the Free to Play games that let you unlock practically everything by just playing the game more (granted, a decent amount of grinding, but still)? or games that allow you to unlock everything with one purchase (currently can only think of Tribes Ascend, $40 to unlock all weapons and upgrades). Granted, skins are still money purchases, but in the age of DLC, I would rather skins be the real money only component, rather than maps/guns.

    when a F2P game badgers you to pay money for power, its a bad F2P game.

    Now I can admit though, the most money I have spent on games is F2P games (Damn league of legends with their awesome sales), but I would rather support a dev more for the support they are providing.

  2. Andrew says:

    I’m sorry, I find the first one in the grey space of ethical. While within the ‘rules’ it seems a abuse of the system from my point of view. I wouldn’t be proud of myself doing that.

    • Andrew, I don’t see returning a use game within a store’s policy is unethical. The store gets the game back in the same condition it sold it to you and can still turn the obscene profit it’s accustomed to after it bought that game from someone for pennies on the dollar. If the policy were a problem for GameStop, no doubt it would change it. I suspect the policy is in place to cover the company’s backside in case it accidentally sells used products that don’t work properly. In a sense it saves GameStop the need to enact rigorous quality control, farming that job out to the customer.

      • Andrew says:

        Just because you’re working within the policy doesn’t mean you’re not abusing it in an unethical manner. Your blog outlines the explicit intention of ‘buying’ a game only to return it a week later. You’re going into it with the idea of abusing the system, not honestly deciding the game didn’t work etc.

        Is it okay to buy a big screen TV for the weekend to see the big game only to return it on Monday? Whether in policy or not, it’s still shady.

        The idea that they’ll still make an obscene profit turns it to a david vs. goliath argument which is ridiculous. Whether they make money or not isn’t relevant.

        • The TV argument is specious. You’re talking about a new device that you’d return with considerably less value in exchange for a refund, while I’m talking about a used game that retains its full value. There is no deception involved because the store is selling you the game with the understanding that you can return it within the specified period.

  3. kimber says:

    I am shocked, ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED you mentioned nothing about not being an early adopter. True, I have been gaming under a rock since the 90s, and it helps if you don’t feel the need to game with strangers over the internet, but I just got a wii (in trade for something immaterial (no not sex)) got a bunch of wii points from friends for my birthday and have been playin the best games I can download to my wii. A lot of wii games at Game Stop are ten bucks or less right now. Also I find it pretty unethical to play a game and return it when there is nothing wrong with it… I don’t care that you do it, but that is not an option for me.

    Anyway, wait patiently for the xbox360 to drop down in price until it is $50 or something, and once you get behind the wave of new releases enough, you will be gaming the same pace as everyone else. just ten years behind and thousands of dollars richer.

    • Phil Villarreal says:

      Excellent points. Now is definitely the time to get going on your Atari 2600 and Game Boy Color collections as well. One drawback to waiting years and years to pick up a system is you miss out on online multiplayer, but since that didn’t exist for most Wii games that’s not a big issue for you. Mario Kart Wii, on the other hand, still has a rocking community and will until the Wii U version comes out.

  4. Honey Smith says:

    I consider video games one of the cheaper forms of entertainment. We would have high-speed internet in any case because my husband works from home, and while our TV is big, it was purchased years ago and is as much for TV as it is for games.

    You can get most PS3 games used on Amazon for $5 or so, and even the games that we paid full-price for (Skyrim comes to mind) I have played for over 350 hours. That’s an incredibly low cost per use.

  5. Joel says:

    I used to game quite a bit and no longer partake but a good friend and I actually turned it in to a fairly lucrative business, bringing in over a thousand dollars per month. We would play online games, WoW and the like, and ‘power-level’ people. People would hand over their character information to us and we’d very quickly and efficiently take them from level 10 to level 40. It was absolutely stunning what people would pay to save a day’s worth of time to skip ahead with their characters.
    We also sold rare items on eBay for a nice sum.

    These things not only covered our gaming, but most of the rent at the time! We were going to be gaming anyway but we wanted to turn the financial liability of gaming in to an asset.

    • Anon says:

      Except that this is explicitly forbidden by the terms of contract on most MMORPGs, and specifically WoW. Anyway, you can’t really make that much money doing it now; as with most things that can be outsourced, they’ll do it for a lot less in China.

  6. Justin says:

    Phil, the only danger here (and in your last column regarding using someone else’s premium cable) is becoming ‘that guy’. Borrowing is great, I love to borrow from friends, but part of the social contract regarding borrowing is to eventually contribute back to the community pot. Otherwise you move from borrowing into mooching. I guess if you can put up with the social shame, it is a great way to save money 😉 Otherwise you might find that you quickly have fewer ‘friends’ willing to lend you games each time you knock.

    I say it is better to save by learning to live with less. I know my wife was pretty happy when I got rid of the stand up Neo Geo arcade cabinet that took up a pretty good hunk of prime living room real estate (and didn’t look all that ‘adult’ either.)

    • I’m sensing a theme in these comments. Wives are the antidote to gaming addiction. Let your story of your banished arcade cabinet be a warning to all those who still have arcade cabinets. Cherish them while you can.

  7. hwally says:

    You forgot Steam :) http://store.steampowered.com/ They have the cheapest online games and most xbox games. Every weekend they have a sale and I’ve gotten some great games for $4.99. Recently got Bastion for $2.99 that was a fun little game and totally worth the price.

    if you have an xbox PC controller it makes it even more fun.

    • Steam does offer good deals but PC gaming will only take you so far. You have to miss out on a ton of exclusives and need an expensive rig to keep up with the high-end stuff.

      • Anon says:

        Are you kidding? The PS3, for example, went for $400+ when it first came out. And you can’t upgrade it. You can get a pretty nice laptop that will run almost any game out there for just a little more than that. Plus you can use it for other, non-gaming purposes. You also have fewer stupid console competition restrictions. Also if you go with a desktop computer (and sorry, but in this area PC >>>>> Mac), it can be a heck of a lot cheaper to upgrade a graphics card than to buy an entirely new system.

      • hwally says:

        Ahh yes, but you have PC-only content as well. For example in Skyrim for PC you can add Mods which aren’t available on console.

        And my computer isn’t fancy at all. I bought it 3 years ago for $400 and its still running strong. Doesn’t have any issues. The only problem I run into is my internet crapping out due to Time Warner.
        Plus I never have to deal with the fact that Microsoft wants to switch to making resale games unplayable.

        Oh yeah, P.S. I’m the female gamer in the marriage :)

  8. Oh man I’m so glad my husband has cut back on his video gaming! When we were in college he would sink hours every day into WoW or Halo, but he’s gradually played less and less as he’s grown up. I’m certainly glad he let his XBox Live subscription lag. He hasn’t gotten a new console since before we were married and the experience of buying 1 or 2 just-released games on our tight budget that he didn’t end up playing much put a stop to paying for gaming entirely. Now he just plays League of Legends a few times per week – it’s a free online game and you can pay for certain upgrades but he doesn’t spend a dime on it.

    • Sounds like you’ve got him well-trained. Which reminds me of the best tip to curb your gaming budget: Marry someone who resents your hobby.

      • Haha, I know that’s what my comment sounds like! But believe me when I say that marriage has taught me that I have zero ability to control anyone else. We did have a lot of clashes over his video gaming when we were younger and he was playing 6 hrs/day, but over time I accepted his point that I have my own timewasting hobbies like blogging. He spends his time how he likes (as do I) and video gaming has just become less important, especially as he started budgeting (on his own, before we were married) and realized he had higher priorities than buying consoles and games. He really likes LoL and has been playing it for a couple years now.

        My husband tells me all the time that the average gamer age is now like 35, so I know adults still play, but my observation as late-twenties person now is that nearly all the men I know have cut down their gaming time (though usually not out) as other priorities and responsibilities have grown. I think you’re very smart to find ways to continue your hobby without spending as much money as you might.

      • KM says:

        I guess I didn’t think ahead on that one and married another gamer – he even dragged me into WoW (but I got him addicted to EVE). But for us, a great deterrent from spending too much time on games is having a toddler. So if you ever want to get rid of an expensive hobby, get a child or two – instant lack of free time! :)

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