Cents and Sensibility

Lessons from the Oregon Trail

You can put me on record as saying that Oregon Trail was one of the best educational games ever created. For those of you who are either too young to remember or just never got around to playing it (and by the way, I mourn your childhood), Oregon Trail was a computer game played from a floppy disk, and later a CD-ROM, wherein you and your family made the challenging trek from Independence, Missouri to the promised land of Oregon. Along the way, you hunted, traded, crossed rivers, battled sickness and sometimes tragically buried your wife.

I’m fascinated by history and sickeningly competitive. So naturally, Oregon Trail became an obsession. I have a feeling that a few of you also remember it fondly. Little did I know that it would teach me financial lessons that would last me a lifetime. And although “lifetime” in this case only means “well into my 20’s,” I feel that they are timeless enough to share with you.

  • You Don’t Have to Be a Banker – Don’t get me wrong, the $1600 you get from being a banker covers way more expenses than the $400 you get from being a teacher. But money isn’t everything – not on the trail and not in real life. With a little elbow grease, anyone could make it to Oregon; and those who did it on a lesser salary got crazy bonus points! My uncle always played as a teacher, and his scores always beat my scores when I played as a doctor ($1200 to start and a better chance of battling dysentery). So think about that if you ever feel bad about that BA in Comparative Literature. It may take some hard work and ingenuity, but you will be just fine and may even come out on top.
  • It Pays to Be Handy – You can save a lot of money my knowing how to fix a broken axle or properly caulk a wagon. Okay, maybe not now. Back then you could. But in the present day, it doesn’t hurt to know how to change your oil, mend your buttons, cook and myriad other DIY-things.
  • But Know When to Splurge – Anyone who isn’t ashamed to admit they watch The People’s Court can tell you Judge Milian’s Spanish proverb, “The cheap becomes expensive.” For example, if the Platte River is at 45 ft. and it’s stormy, pay for the ferry. Any other DIY option will likely result in losing oxen, family members or worse, food. Off the trail, you may want to apply this principle to situations wherein the product or service you need is best left to a high-quality professional. This includes plumbers. I’m looking at you, Nick Miller.

You guys just got lucky

  • Network – The people you could meet along the trail were invaluable sources of information and supplies. Sure, there were forts available if you needed to replenish supplies. But supplies were increasingly expensive the farther away you were from heavily settled civilization, and trading was a fun, cost-effective option if you were low on cash. It was like Craigslist for pioneers! Plus, mingling with the local tribes and fellow travelers often led to discovering good advice (like which rivers were too treacherous) or cool historical trivia. And that’s all networking is, really. You meet people, you learn things. Maybe some of those things will be useful. And if not, it’s just one more thing to add to your bank of bar trivia answers.
  • Hunt Sustainably– Frontiersmen over-hunted bison nearly to the point of extinction. The game reflects this by offering less animals to hunt if you overdid it early on. These days, we are still dealing with issues of over-consumption and unsustainable food practices. I doubt the majority of us are only eating what we farm, but I encourage you to buy local and support sustainable food practices whenever possible.

    Don't get crazy. You can only carry 200 lbs. of food back to the wagon anyway.

  • Everything in Moderation – After countless trips to Oregon, I’ve found that you had the best chance if you picked meager rations and a strenuous pace. Small rations cause people to get sick, while large rations cause you to run out of food. A fast pace can exhaust your wagon party and your oxen, but too slow of a pace means you won’t make it to Oregon before winter, leaving you vulnerable to disease and starvation. Fast forward to 2012, I am happiest when I am neither crash-dieting nor overeating, all the while maintaining a good work-life balance. Wouldn’t you agree?

I miss Oregon Trail. A LOT. It was educational and impactful in ways beyond a history or computer lesson. I tried buying the game again, but the new version just isn’t the same. Too many bells and whistles. I know there’s a Farmville-esque version that explores what happened once you settle in Oregon, but I worry that I will be disappointed yet again. Then again, my boyfriend often stops what he’s doing to collect mortgage and divvy out medicine to the poor. In the name of financial education, perhaps it’s time for me to do a little “research.”

Images from Shutterstock and Listal

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