Life money

Playing a Zero Sum Game

If you read this blog much, you’ll find that I’m usually pretty flexible in my opinions. I’m not one of those “wake-at-3am-to-micromanage-life” types, and while I do believe discipline is important, I’m more a believer in compassion. Take some time off, don’t stress if you don’t reach your goal, give yourself credit for trying – those are all philosophies I promote.

Which is why it might surprise you to know that when it comes to my own daily practices of scheduling and money, I enjoy playing a zero-sum game.

Sumthing Different

“Zero-sum game” is kind of the definition of a scarcity mentality – it’s the idea that there is a finite amount of resources, and if player X has this much, that’s less for player Y to have. Often the idea of a pie is put out there, with an example that if I have a bigger slice, that’s less that anyone else can have, because eventually the pie will be gone.

Now, as a life philosophy, this really sucks. I could spend so much time describing why it’s false (and I’ll do a little of that at the end of this post). For some reason, when it comes to my day and my money, it is the magic bullet that helps me accomplish the things that I really want to do.

The Zero-Based Calendar

I first learned about this from an article by Bryan Harris, but it was later embraced by the folks over at Best Self journal (which I reviewed positively, btw). I still use their three-month calendar on my wall, and while I don’t quite have their journal in my budget, I continue to adopt the zero-based calendar idea. The short version is that you schedule every part of your day, from the moment you wake up. No down time! Or rather, if you have down time, you schedule it: 12:00-12:30, Read comics. I really enjoy filling my google calendar with blocks of time, each slotted neatly right next to each other.

You can read a really great review of it over at this article by Melanie Deziel, so I won’t go into it in detail here. What I will say is that I think I’ve figured out part of the appeal for me: the zero-based schedule is a “protector of personal time.” If I have “practice handlettering” for an hour, that no longer feels like a selfish waste of time (the imposter syndrome of taking up an artistic endeavor will be a future post). Suddenly it’s ok, because it’s on the schedule and given equal status with “client work” etc. It’s also helped me keep up my workouts and also enjoy more things like date night with my partner.

Zero-Based Budgeting

This is not one I have as much experience with – it is most popularly espoused by Dave Ramsey, a financial advisor. Like the schedule, this means that every penny of your money is accounted for. “Write down what you earn. Write down your monthly expenditures. The number you end up with should be zero.”

Now, the idea isn’t to spend it all – socking it away into a savings account is entirely valid, and setting aside an amount for comic books or whatever your nourishing pleasure might be is also recommended.

But what you don’t have is any money just “laying around.” The way Greg Johnson put it in his article was: Income minus Expenses minuts Savings equals Zero. I found that article, incidentally, while researching another budget idea, the “50-20-30” rule. It’s similar to “7 Envelopes” in that it basically applies a set percentage to everything that counts as income, and then you pay the bills out of those “pools” of money. There are several financial bloggers who find this imprecision objectionable, and I understand the urge to have all the columns in the spreadsheet balance – but that’s not me. Like I said before, I’m not really a detail-oriented person.

I can’t find which blogger wrote the phrase, but I know exactly what it is about zero-based budgeting that appeals to me. The way they put it was: “every dollar will be working for you. That re-framing of money from being a scarce resource I need to work for to being a powerful tool that can work for me to help achieve my goals…that resonates.

I am still working on figuring out how being a freelancer with a variable income will work with this system. However, in the meantime I have a better grasp on my finances now than I have in a long time (note: that’s a measure of awareness, not fiscal health; “Money Anxiety Disorder” is still a thing).

Remember That It’s a Game

Just a quick reminder that these are games – metaphors, really – that help me live my life. The problem with mistaking a zero-sum game with a zero-sum life is that it is a tremendously narrow view. Yes, if your day is a pie which you have to slice into specific pieces, you have to remember that tomorrow you get another pie. And yes, while you don’t know necessarily how many more pies you’ll get, neither does anyone else – so it’s best to just assume that tomorrow another pie will be there.

And in terms of money, there’s a simple maxim: there’s always more money out there. If you do not have enough money, there are always ways to get more. Often that starts with cutting out extraneous expenses, but that only works so far (and quality of life is a form of wealth that should not be compromised). Instead, it’s important to remember that there is more money out there for you if you need it. At the core money is nothing more than an idea – and ideas are infinite.

What do you think? Have you tried either of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Looking to improve your own love, life, or practices? I’m available for personal coaching and planning sessions via phone, video or (if you’re in the Chicago area) in person. Head on over to my calendar and set up a time!

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