7 Financial Lessons From 'Game of Thrones'


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By Michael Estrin for Bankrate.com

Fans of the HBO series "Game of Thrones" will tell you that its perfect mix of sex, violence and political intrigue have made the epic fantasy a huge hit.

But the show, which is based on author George R.R. Martin's book series "A Song of Ice and Fire," also offers up some pretty valuable financial lessons, according to Matthew McCaffrey, who has written extensively on the economic implications of the TV program and the novels.

"Both 'Game of Thrones' (and the books) have more to teach us about economic and social life than we might think," says McCaffrey, a postdoctoral fellow who teaches economics at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

"Money and finance are closely tied to the rise and fall of the great houses of Westeros (on 'Game of Thrones'), just as they are to our houses in the real world."

1. 'Winter is coming'

"Winter is coming" is the title of the series' pilot episode and could be a tagline for the series. But when House Stark head Ned Stark first utters the line, it's after his wife Catelyn expresses concern that their son Bran is too young to have just witnessed an execution.

On a literal level, it's a reference to the weather, which grows colder as the series progresses. But the line also can be read as a declaration that it's time for Bran -- and just about everyone else -- to start acting like adults and get ready for an uncertain, and quite possibly difficult, future.

Financial lesson: It's never too early to prepare for what's ahead. That's advice most of us could use, especially when you consider that surveys have found that up to half of Americans aren't saving for retirement at all, and that most people who are saving are doing an inadequate job of it.

On the other hand, starting to save in your 20s gives you at least 40 years to grow your money -- which is a great way to prepare for the future.

2. 'A Lannister always pays his debts'

If there had been credit reporting agencies in medieval Westeros, you can bet that members of House Lannister would have pretty high credit scores. That's because "a Lannister always pays his debts," as every Lannister is fond of saying.

Perhaps that’s what makes Tyrion Lannister a good choice when he is named "Master of Coin," akin to finance minister for Westeros.

"Master of Coin is a vital player because he can manipulate taxation, borrowing and even the value of money," says McCaffrey.

Financial lesson: Paying your debts promptly is always good advice. Even better advice is to make sure you don't incur more debt than you can pay.

Consider the latest data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the last quarter of 2013, total household debt, including mortgages, student and auto loans, and credit cards, jumped by 2.1 percent or $241 billion -- the largest quarter-over-quarter increase in six years.

So we Americans are borrowing more -- but can we handle it? While some debt, like a mortgage, can be considered good debt, taking on high-interest credit card debt can put you in financial danger.

3. Choose your heirs carefully

As you might expect, any show that features recurring storylines about royals is bound to get caught up in questions of succession. And, as "Game of Thrones" fans know all too well, those who wear the crown aren't always the best candidates for the job.

When the series begins, we see a world still dealing with the fallout from the killing of a monarch known as the Mad King because of his unpredictable temper. Unfortunately, Joffrey Baratheon, one of the claimants to the throne, isn't much better and reveals himself to be a cruel boy with a lust for blood.

Financial lesson: The show demonstrates -- in extreme terms -- how badly things can go when you don't designate heirs.

The lesson for the average American household is that a little estate planning can go a long way.

The cost of preparing a will is relatively low, and just about everybody needs one. But more than half of all Americans don't have a will or an estate plan, according to one study.

4. Knowing where to place your trust

It's just not a "Game of Thrones" episode if characters aren't plotting the betrayal of others, finding out they themselves have been betrayed, or running from the fallout of such treachery.

Betrayal is a major theme of the show, and no character, no matter how powerful, is immune from a good double-cross. Indeed, it’s the betrayal of Ned Stark that sets in motion much of the show's story.

Financial lesson: The constant backstabbing on "Game of Thrones" makes a viewer wonder about the challenge of thriving in such a world where trust is in short supply.

Even without the threat of epic betrayals, in our world, we face our own trust questions, especially when it comes to financial issues. Can you trust your financial adviser? What about your real estate or insurance professional? Fortunately for you, the real world offers several tools and resources to verify and keep tabs on the experts you entrust with your money.

5. It's a big world

Fans of "Game of Thrones" have noticed that the map of the world seen during the opening credits has expanded to include additional territories as the series has progressed.

In fact, the world is so big that two of the major threats to the show's Seven Kingdoms -- the white walkers (think zombies from the Arctic) and Daenerys Targaryen's dragons -- have remained largely hidden from most of the characters in the series. Out of sight, out of mind. For now.

Financial lesson: Like the characters in "Game of Thrones," we live in a big world. But unlike those characters, we have ways of learning about the faraway forces that impact our lives and wallets -- whether it's the European debt crisis or economic pressures from China.

So if there's a financial takeaway to be had from the scope of the land in "Game of Thrones," it's this: We literally can't afford to ignore the rest of the world.

6. Women's work is undervalued

Whether it's wealth or power, a woman can achieve most anything in "Game of Thrones." But when it comes to carrying a sword and wearing armor, women don't get much respect.

In fact, we've only seen one female knight -- Brienne of Tarth. While she's as strong and dutiful as any male knight, few people take Brienne's martial skills seriously. Indeed, in season two, other soldiers laugh uncontrollably when they hear that Brienne is a knight.

Financial lesson: Though women have achieved positions of power and wealth in our society, challenges remain, just as Brienne has found.

Consider that in today's workforce women still earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Gender equality still has a long way to go.

7. You need a disability 'carrier'

Modern-day health insurance doesn't exist in "Game of Thrones," which is unfortunate for young Bran Stark. He narrowly survives a fall from a great height and then lingers in a coma. He eventually regains consciousness and learns that he'll never walk again.

From that point on, Bran is dependent on his caregiver, a slow-witted giant named Hodor, who is strong enough to carry the boy on his back.

Financial lesson: Having good health insurance is one thing, but even the best policies cover only your immediate medical care. If you're unable to work because of a disability, you'll need a financial Hodor to carry you.

While you may be able to expect some assistance from your state (depending on where you live) or the federal government, many of us get our disability coverage from work.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, about half of all large and midsize U.S. employers offer coverage that would provide income during a long-term disability. However, in many cases, those group policies don't go far enough and need to be supplemented with a private policy.

This article was originally posted on Bankrate.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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