For anyone who's facing down challenges like trying to get out of credit card debt or improve their credit score, it can feel like you're at the mercy of your circumstances -- much like the tributes chosen to compete in "The Hunger Games."
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Fear not. With the lessons gleaned from the novel and hit film, you can conquer the Games, and live a prosperous life in the "victor's village" of great credit.
1. Win over your sponsors
Hunger Games protagonists and "tributes" Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark wisely play up their romantic relationship to the citizens of Panem in order to win them over and score useful items to give them an advantage during their fight for survival in the arena.
Similarly, when applying for a loan or line or credit, you have to prove your worth -- quite literally -- in order to be approved and get the best rates. And your credit score is often the most important piece of the puzzle.
"You need to develop a cornucopia [yes, that's a Hunger Games reference!] to help increase your credit score," says Harrine Freeman, CEO of H.E. Freeman Enterprises and author of "How to Get Out of Debt: Get an 'A' Credit Rating for Free." That includes everything from fixing errors on your credit report to paying down debt to reconciling outstanding accounts.
First, keep in mind that your credit score is a snapshot of your credit today, says Wayne Sanford, a credit consultant and owner of Texas-based New Start Financial Corp. In other words, you can improve your score in as little as 30 days if you can manage to pay off some of your debt or lower your debt utilization (the ratio between how much debt is owed and how much credit is available).
"Start by contacting your creditors and ask them when they report to the credit bureaus," he suggests. That way, you'll know when to expect your new and improved score, so you can move forward and apply for your loan at the right time (and get the best interest rate possible).
If you don't have the means to make a significant payment toward your balances, another option is to ask for a raise in your credit limit. Doing so successfully will lower your debt utilization amount, says Sanford. For instance, if you owe $250 with a $500 credit limit, you are utilizing 50% of your credit; get your limit changed to $1,000, and now you are only using 25%.
If you're going to give this method a shot, Sanford says to be sure your creditor can do this based on your history of on-time payments, rather than having them check your credit history, which in and of itself can knock your credit score down a few points. "If they do have to pull your credit, you have to make the determination if you want that extra inquiry on your report," he says.
2. Take advantage of a mentor's experience and knowledge
Just as former Hunger Games victor Haymitch Abernathy ends up sharing his insider knowledge with his districts' chosen competitors, so, too, can a financial adviser help you craft a wise credit strategy. This could be anyone from a financially savvy uncle to your accountant to a financial planner. The key is to learn to recognize when you need assistance and then know where to go to get it.
Freeman says if you fall into one of these categories, you might want to consider a money mentor: "If you keep making the same financial mistakes over and over again, if you do not have knowledge about how to effectively manage your finances or if you are living paycheck to paycheck."
As far as who to trust with your cash concerns, Denise Winston, founder of Money Start Here, a financial education company, says to do your homework. "A great place to start is a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. They offer free or low-cost advice; do a little research on them to make sure they are on the up and up," she says. Be sure the service is affiliated with either the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
3. Be ready for unexpected challenges/rule changes
Just when the contestants seem to be getting the hang of things, the Hunger Games gamemakers shake things up in the arena by setting fires in their paths or flash floods (not to mention Tracker Jacker or wolf mutt attacks). That's pretty relatable to anyone who works hard to keep their spending in check, only to be hit with a broken down car, busted water heater or unexpected medical bills.
"One of the smartest ways to play and win at the financial game of life is to play strategically," says Winston. In other words, establishing an emergency fund can help you handle whatever comes your way. To get one started, Winston suggests strategically using your tax refund, bonuses, overtime pay, unexpected gifts and windfalls to infuse your emergency stash. From there, you can get into a routine of contributing a set amount -- no matter how small -- from each paycheck. "Another tip: Put your emergency funds into an account that is inconvenient so it is hard to access and you will not be tempted to spend it," says Winston, "similar to how Katniss hid her bow in the forest brush and her arrows in the trees" to use when she needed to hunt when food was scarce.
Of course, you may also have to deal with situations beyond your control, such as an unresolved billing error that results in a collections notice. "Understand if you have bills, you can always negotiate with creditors (i.e. the hospital). And you need to be prepared to watch your own back," says Sanford. That means keeping paper trails and documenting any communications you have. "If you're having an issue, make notes (on this date, I talked to this person), and ask whomever you're speaking with to put your dispute in their system's internal notes," he says. Finally, he says, go straight up the chain to a supervisor if your credit is at stake, to be sure you get the resolution you need.
4. Be resourceful
At the heart of "The Hunger Games" is a story about using your smarts, your meager resources and whatever means necessary to survive. The same could be said for anyone trying to get by in today's tough economy, especially those who find themselves out of work.
Luckily, if you're a worthy opponent, you'll come up with clever ways to stretch your dollar. For example, Winston's favorite source of free money comes from an unexpected place. "Receipts are cash, not trash," she says. "They allow you to return unused items, surveys on them net freebies, discounts and contest entries, coupons for future purchases, money back on price match programs, not to mention tax deductions," she says.
On a broader scale, Sanford recommends taking the next month to carefully assess every bill you pay. Question whether you can get a better rate on your car insurance, if you can downgrade your cell phone or cable bills, etc. A couple of hours of research and a few phone calls can net you a nice chunk of monthly savings, he says.
And, everyone could stand to cut back on all of those unnecessary daily purchases from bottled water (bring your own), to commuting costs (carpool or bike it), to personal grooming services (cut back where you can). Think of it this way: A few small sacrifices hardly compares to Katniss volunteering to replace her younger sister, Primrose, as her district's tribute in the 74th Hunger Game, but it can make all the difference.