Starting about a year ago, my partner and I decided to sit down once a week and examine our spending habits. We focused on making little, painless changes that would add up over time. One of the obvious places to cut costs was gaming, and we decided that I should lay off buying new games and focus on discounts and clearance sales instead.

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The plan backfired. I enjoyed economizing so much that my gaming budget more than doubled. In the same way that people often translate “sugar free” into “eat all you want,” bargain videogames gave me all the justification I needed to abandon restraint.

I found there are scores of games that need rescuing from clearance racks and bargain bins, and they come with all sorts of Milo Minderbinder reasons why I can’t afford not to buy them. Cruising through GameStop’s PC gaming ghetto, I spot GUN for $10 and know that I likely will never see a boxed copy for this price again. If there ever comes a day when I actually want to play it, I would regret not snagging this deal. So I buy it, feeling great about all the hypothetical future money I just saved.

In retrospect, publishers were helping me save money by charging $50 per game, since that price brings significant disincentives. A shade too much for an impulse purchase, it forced me to ask “What else could I do with this money?” The answer is usually “something much better.”

Unfortunately for me, it turns out that a game selling for $20 or less flies well below the radar of my better judgment. These are amounts that I can easily translate into other things I’ve wasted money on without a second thought, so my conscience remains untroubled when I hit the register.

It’s possible that I’ve crossed a line into compulsive behavior. I can’t go to the mall without cruising through GameStop, and the moment I step inside a Best Buy or Target, I beeline for the software section regardless of what originally brought me there. These impromptu bargain hunts exasperate my partner; one moment I’m right there beside her picking out toilet cleaners and fluorescent tubes, and the next she’s alone with the cart and the shopping list, which notably does not include Sins of a Solar Empire.

When she finally tracks me down, I have my justifications ready. “Hon, this game is usually $40, but check it out! It’s on sale for $20.”

“Yeah,” she says carefully, noting the mad, missionary light in my eyes. “But I’ve never even heard you talk about this game. Is this something you’re really interested in?”

“Oh yeah! I’ve had my eye on this one for a long time. The guys from Gamers With Jobs have been going nuts about it for awhile.” (She likes the guys on the GWJ Conference Call, finding it the second least-intolerable gaming podcast that I listen to.) Then, for some reason thinking this is a selling point, I add, “Apparently this game is so crazy that multiplayer matches take like nine or ten hours. It consumes your weekend.”

There’s no way my partner would go for this if she could claim the moral high ground on finances. But she has her own addictions to feed. In the first place, there is her love for all things Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. In the second place, she’s a grad student in physics and doesn’t think you can put a price on crisp, clean data. Even if you could have enough lasers, magnetic shields or rubidium cells (a point she will not readily concede), you could always still have better ones.

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So while I’m cradling Sins of a Solar Empire in my hands with a hopeful look, she’s anticipating the next time she’ll turn to me and ask, “Is it alright if I just put these magnets on the Visa? We’ll be reimbursed soon, and I really need them for the next phase of my experiment.” We both know that the word “soon” to a university bursar’s office carries much the same meaning as it would to a California Redwood, but I’ll be forced to relent. “By the way,” she’ll add, “when they’re delivered, make sure they don’t get within 20 feet of anything electronic or metallic. Seriously.”

Inevitably, Sins comes home with us like a puppy from the pound. It lies shrink-wrapped to this day, waiting for the next time I have an entire weekend to burn. In the meantime, my collection keeps ballooning as I acquire far more than I have time to play. We may not be models of financial discipline, but at least neither of us is forced to play the perpetual bad cop – a far worse prospect than a few misspent dollars.

This equilibrium can be difficult to maintain, however, and it’s only getting harder now that the bargains themselves have started hunting me. Steam and GamersGate track me down me every weekend with tempting offers, giving me only a couple of days to decide my fate. I may not have cared about Lost Planet on Friday morning, but by Sunday night, owning it is a moral imperative. At five bucks, can I really afford to ignore some guy on a forum who contends that the game is a misunderstood gem?

When a game drops to $5 or $10, it becomes almost devoid of cons. If it’s lousy, I’ve invested the cost of a movie ticket, and I actually end up saving time because I’m not trying to wring fun from a shoddy game just to validate my purchase. Conversely, if the game is decent, it’s easier to enjoy it on its own terms. I won’t be playing Painkiller and resenting it for not being Half-Life, because I don’t saddle a discount title with the same expectations that I often do with new game purchases.

Naturally, there have been plenty of duds and disappointments along the way. But even the misfires have their pleasures, and on the whole my gaming tastes have broadened greatly. Last year I bought Silent Hunter III for $5, despite having no interest in sub simulations, because the purchase was effectively risk free. Forty hours of gaming passed in the blink of an eye, until the Royal Navy put an ugly end to my burgeoning career as a U-boat skipper. I would never have experienced that suspense-filled masterpiece were it not for the out-of-the-blue Steam sale that clued me into it.

There are hidden costs that come with my savings, however. Notably, I’ve had to give up the lively discussion that accompanies major releases. When every gamer I know seems to be playing Fallout 3 or GTA IV, swapping great stories and amazed reactions, I feel like the only person who wasn’t invited to a great party. On the other hand, there’s no escaping the fact that many games don’t deserve anywhere near the attention they receive at release. This past June, you couldn’t get away from the Infamous vs. Prototype discussion. By August you couldn’t find a soul who still cared.

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A greater loss is that I’m not as connected to my tribe as I used to be. Succumbing to unbounded praise and excessive glee is part of being a gamer, and it’s how gamers come together. My favorite GTA IV memories are about the enthusiasm that accompanied its release: the midnight launch lines, the hyperbolic reviews, the furious debates and the long nights spent playing it in a room full of friends, roaring with laughter at comic homicides and passing the controller back and forth after each death. It was a rare moment when gaming really did make me feel (and act) like a kid again.

Holding back on new purchases also forces me to impose on my console-owning friends. I’m constantly dropping by to play the latest games just so that I can be up to date. While I like to think I’m good company, most people don’t benefit from getting drunk on a weeknight and playing Metal Gear Solid 4 until three in the morning with a freelance writer friend who, unlike them, doesn’t have anywhere to be in six hours. These charms are only enhanced by my regular declarations, at 20-minute intervals, that “this game would be so much better with a mouse and keyboard.”

Hopping from bargain to bargain is a more isolated type of gaming, because I’m always months or even years behind the curve. By the time I get around to playing Red Faction: Guerilla, nobody will want to talk much about it. I’m also rarely surprised, because I read and hear too much before I get the chance to play.

For all that I miss about being part of the early crowd, however, I can’t really go back. Now that I’ve been paying a few bucks apiece for games like Psychonauts, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Europa Universalis III, I can’t return to paying full price for entirely unremarkable games just so I can have the privilege of playing them early. All prices are negotiable with patience, and given the stack of games I’ve accumulated lately, patience is something I can easily afford.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and noted cheapskate. You can follow his penny-pinching at http://robzacny.com.

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