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    Save the Day: How Young Chinese Are Role-Playing Their Way to Wealth

    As living expenses rise, more young Chinese are turning money management into role-playing games. On social media, participants craft and share imaginative stories and fantasies to inspire better saving habits.

    Ding Juanjuan is in the fifth month of a pregnancy that has captured the imagination of more than 47,000 followers on Xiaohongshu, China’s popular lifestyle app. Except, there’s no baby on the way.

    Instead, the 24-year-old has turned the concept of motherhood into a novel savings strategy, meticulously tracking and “paying” for pregnancy expenses — from medical appointments to baby shopping — and depositing the equivalent of over 6,000 yuan ($835) into her digital wallet.

    “Growing up, I always played with the idea of not having a child,” said Ding, who graduated from college last year. “The rationale was simple: by freeing myself from the tremendous costs of child-rearing, I could save that money for a more comfortable life in my later years.”

    Staring at rising living expenses and financial uncertainty, an increasing number of young Chinese are reimagining the act of saving into an imaginative role-playing game, encouraging participants to save money by living vicariously through stories and fantasies.

    In recent months, serialized posts where participants adopt a variety of fictional personas have surged on Xiaohongshu: from an elderly individual to a princess, or even characters like Caroline Channing from the American drama “2 Broke Girls” and Shin-chan from the Japanese animation “Crayon Shin-chan.”

    Such participants, including Ding, have opened separate digital wallets for their deposits, while others opt for a bank account that is not linked to any payment apps, ensuring the money saved remains untouched.

    For instance, one blogger imagines herself as Harry Potter’s classmate, sharing daily adventures in the wizarding world. She concludes each post with the amount of money saved that day, inspired by the story’s events — such as saving seven yuan to symbolize the cost of a wand.

    Another user portrays a princess forced to fend for herself after her kingdom is destroyed. On the first day she encouraged participants on her account to save 20 yuan, mirroring the princess’s first earnings from a part-time job at KFC.

    Jiang Ling, a nurse in the eastern city of Hangzhou, finds the gamified approach to saving both relaxing and engaging compared to traditional methods. After participating for two months, Jiang has saved approximately 3,000 yuan.

    “I’m too shy to share this with friends because it feels somewhat childish, but for someone with my lack of self-discipline, it’s effective,” the 26-year-old told Sixth Tone.

    Huang Shuming, a 27-year-old insurance broker from Shenzhen, is another avid participant. She’s crafted a narrative around a 61-year-old childless, wealthy woman navigating her later years.

    “The trend of an aging society has pushed young people to confront issues of elderly care,” Huang explained, adding that she hoped her character would spark a conversation on the subject through her fictional account.

    Though the story is made up, it draws on Huang’s life and observations from senior influencers, like a 62-year-old yoga coach known for dyeing her hair in different colors. “The character is a projection of my future self,” said Huang.

    Huang also looks to provide a more relaxed experience through her narratives, carefully avoiding any content that might provoke anxiety about elderly care. Rather than encouraging large one-time savings, she recommends smaller, consistent amounts to maintain momentum.

    Ding underscored the need to post regular updates to keep her audience engaged, despite the challenge of creating compelling content and learning about pregnancy. “Completing the story is more important than perfection,” said Ding.

    The new savings approach also comes at a time when young Chinese are increasingly focused on financial prudence.

    According to data from Yu'e Bao, an online fund management platform affiliated with the mobile payment app Alipay, there’s a clear preference for traditional investments among young people.

    In 2021, individuals born after 1995 invested 38% more in the platform compared to the previous year. By 2023, those born after 1990 made up 40% of the platform's user base, marking a significant uptick in participation from those aged 23 to 28.

    “Everyone seems to feel a deep sense of insecurity, safeguarding their money against future uncertainties,” said Huang. With growing interest in wealth management, she explained that savings accounts, offering lower risk and accessibility, have become more appealing compared to the volatility of stocks and mutual funds.

    Ding’s own financial anxieties surfaced after college when she moved to a new city for work. Faced with increased expenses and limited earnings, she was motivated to seek economic independence without relying on her parents.

    “The realization that I need to constantly spend money just to live pushed me towards saving in a more conservative way,” said Ding, adding that she found inspiration in crafting imaginative scenarios to boost her savings efforts.

    In recent years, the move towards economical living has resonated within online communities like “Crazy Money Savers” and “Tight-fisted Women Coalition” on social media platform Douban, where vast communities gather to exchange tips on frugal living.

    Last year, in response to deposit interest rate cuts, domestic media reported that some young Chinese sought higher yields by venturing into smaller banks across different cities to open accounts.

    A 2023 survey showed that many young Chinese save less than might be expected: about 20% have under 10,000 yuan in their accounts, while most save between 10,000 to 100,000 yuan. High among the reasons for these modest savings were high living expenses and the lure of frequent shopping.

    Despite the innovative saving methods gaining popularity, not all find the technique effective. According to Huang, she’s observed varying commitment levels within her savings group but remains an advocate for the method.

    But apart from developing a saving habit, Huang said it’s equally important to make workable plans and manage expectations to tackle finance-related anxieties.

    “It’s about what you can reach for in your life based on your abilities and desires, and what truly is beyond your grasp,” said Huang. “I think sometimes, when something is still out of reach despite your abilities, giving up can also be a good thing, because living well in the present is very important.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Guido Mieth/VCG)