Wealth of advice is available--and much of it's free


They say free advice is worth what you pay for it.

Taking that as a given, there's still a lot of cheap personal-finance information that can be gleaned from various providers of these services.

Due to scores of regulations designed to protect savers and consumers, many documents associated with money-management services are incomprehensible once corporate attorneys or government bureaucrats have approved the pamphlets for public viewing.

But many companies -- not to mention trade groups and government agencies -- have made efforts in recent years to offer educational, rather than promotional, reading materials that can at times be helpful in choosing the right service.

Certainly, no matter how hard the authors try, the guides do contain some biases. Nevertheless, the price is right -- free or nearly free -- and the information can help savers at least ask some better questions when it gets down to selection time.

Here's a list of some of the cheap personal-finance information available:

* One of the slickest bits of information around is a free computer program from Jones & Babson mutual funds in Kansas City, Mo. While parts of the IBM-compatible program are strictly promotional information for the companies' funds, other sections can help savers figure out their savings requirements or attempt to choose investments that will help meet those goals. Call (800) 422-2766.

* Speaking of calculations, one popular freebie is a paper slide rule that helps savers easily estimate various tricky personal-finance compilations. These low-tech "calculators" -- no electronics here, though -- give an understanding of how interest rates, time, taxes and savings interact.

To figure out tax-free bond yields, call Franklin Funds at (800) 342-5236. To calculate how your retirement accounts might grow, call Oppenheimer funds at (800) 525-7048. To calculate zero-coupon bonds, write to Shearson Lehman Brothers, Attn: Paul Buffa, Publications, 34 Hubert St., 4th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10013. Ask for publication GV003.

* Buying a home? Shopping for a mortgage? Great Western Bank offers two guides to the process: one for home buying and another for loan shopping. The booklets include work sheets to compare costs and terms and lists of questions to ask before making a choice. The bank also offers paper slide rules to compute mortgage costs. Call (800) 492-7587.

* Who isn't interested in retirement planning these days? Household International has a 32-page guide called "Your Retirement Dollar." Send $1.25 to Money Management Institute, Household International, 2700 Sanders Road, Prospect Heights, Ill. 60070.

* Life insurance can be confusing. For a free introductory booklet "Consumer Guide to Life Insurance" -- write the American Council of Life Insurance, Publications Request, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004-2599.

* Want to check up on your insurer's financial health? Standard & Poor's, the well-known New York ratings firm, will tell you its ratings for up to three companies for free. Call (212) 208-1527.

* The Charles Schawb & Co. discount brokerage has free guides to seven personal-finance issues: estate planning, retirement planning, investing for children, retirement plan distributions, selecting a financial planner, mutual fund performance and fixed-income investments. Call (800) 435-4000.

* Your rights to credit can be confusing. The U.S. government offers several free brochures to help make the murky situation clearer: "Building a Better Credit Record," "Women & Credit Histories," "Credit Billing Errors" and "Solving Credit Problems." Write to Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

* Teaching children money basics is the focus of a free Citibank booklet. To get it, write to "Keeping Your Financial Balance," c/o Citibank MasterCard and Visa, 301 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022.

* If you will be getting a large sum of money soon as the result of a recent layoff, retirement or change of jobs, Fidelity Investments has a few suggestions on how to handle the distribution. Call (800) 544-4774 and ask for a free brochure called "Leaving Your Employer."

* What is the right asset mix for your investment needs? Shearson Lehman has a new computerized system -- the Strategic Asset Allocation -- that mixes individual needs, incomes and risk tolerance to compile an idea outline for a portfolio. To set up a free consultation, contact your local Shearson brokerage office.

* Nothing is more confusing than Social Security benefits. For some help in understanding the various programs, call the agency at (800) 234-5772 and ask for free guides to survivors' benefits, disability benefits and social security insurance.

* Saving for your child's college tuition is a frightening thought. The Institute for Certified Financial Planners has a free pamphlet that helps. Call (800) 282-7526 and ask for "Your Children's College Bill: How to Figure It . . . How to Pay For It." The institute also offers booklets called "Tax Planning for 1990 and Beyond" and "Avoiding Investment Scams."

* Looking to cut the cost of credit cards? For $1.50, you can get a list of low-rate cards from Bankcard Holders at 560 Herndon Parkway, Suite 120, Herndon, Va. 22070. For $5, a more extensive survey of card terms is available from RAM Research at (800) 344-7714.

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