The Pros Know: Personal Finance Tools That Are Hits With the Experts
/ September 27th, 2004
With millions of online, print, and broadcast sources for personal finance information to choose from, how do you find the ones that offer the most useful tools, a user-friendly format, and information you can trust--without making a full-time job of the hunt? You ask an expert, of course.
Who better to get the inside scoop from than those in the know? Here, seven experts share their favorite books, Web sites, and other resources for getting the latest news, most practical information, and accurate answers to your personal finance questions.
Rick Harper is the director of housing and vice president of program services for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco. As the founder of the organization's award-winning, HUD-approved Housing Education Program
, Harper teaches consumers how to buy their first house, protect the one they have, and make wise credit choices. He received an award of appreciation from the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for outstanding contributions to home ownership in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The pro's picks: IRS Withholding Calculator
This online calculator helps employees fill out their W-4 correctly so that they do not have too much or too little income tax withheld from their pay. It's particularly useful for first-time home buyers, who can run the calculator taking into consideration their new, deductible mortgage payments and property taxes. An increase in deductions on the W-4 means an instant increase in take-home pay!
"Money Troubles: Legal Strategies to Cope With Your Debts"
by Robin Leonard
Harper recommends "Money Troubles," published by Nolo Press, to anyone who uses credit: "Consumers need to know their rights and responsibilities when it comes to borrowing." While the book is geared toward consumers feeling overwhelmed by their debts and who may even be facing legal action, it includes information on avoiding trouble, such as creating a budget and preventing identity theft.
Chris Bjorklund, a former consumer reporter for both television and radio, has spent 30 years reporting on and advocating for consumer rights. She currently is an independent consumer affairs consultant and sits on the board of directors for Consumer Action
, a consumer advocacy group based in San Francisco, and Consumers Union
, New York, which publishes Consumer Reports
and the new Consumer Reports Money Adviser
personal finance newsletter.
The pro's picks:
"There's a consumer protection element to every transaction--from taking out a loan to making a purchase to investing your money," says Bjorklund. "ConsumerWorld.org is probably the largest consumer information Web site out there run by a nonprofit." Site visitors can find consumer protection information, money-saving tips, news about recalls and special offers, and much more. There's even a dedicated Money category with links to hundreds of tools and sites.
Gerri Detweiler is the former executive director of the nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group Bankcard Holders of America (no longer active) and a frequent contributor to radio, television, and print stories about credit, debt, and personal money management. Her book, "The Ultimate Credit Handbook,"
was named by Money
magazine as one of the top five personal finance books in the year it was published. Detweiler's Web site
offers information and solutions for consumers in debt.
The pro's picks:
"This is a great tool for anyone with multiple credit cards who is trying to pay off debt," says Detweiler. Credit Card Math is a free, downloadable program that reveals the trick to allocating your credit card payment dollars to get the biggest bang for your buck and save a small fortune in interest charges. The Zilch program uses the principles of "credit card math" to let you customize your own debt reduction plan. Download the free trial version to see if this might help you dig your way out of the hole. (Download doesn't work on a Mac.)
Detweiler, who describes this as one of the great financial education programs for kids, says that her five-year-old loves this site and the related books and CDs. The It's A Habit Company, whose tagline is "Changing children's lives one dime at a time," teaches financial literacy and other life skills and habits to children in an entertaining way. Detweiler says that after listening to Sammy, the rabbit with great habits, her daughter adopted a totally different attitude about money and became more of a saver, practically overnight.
Suze Orman is the author of a bookshelf full of personal finance resources, including the bestsellers "The Road to Wealth," "The Courage to Be Rich,"
and "9 Steps to Financial Freedom."
The recipient of a Daytime Emmy Award for her most recent PBS special, The Laws of Money, The Lessons of Life
, Orman also hosts her own national CNBC-TV show, which airs every Saturday night. Articles, resources, program schedule, and Orman's personal finance library can be found at her Web site
The pro's picks:
"This is the best site out there, bar none, for 529 (college savings) plans," says Orman of the site run by Joe Hurley, the "nation's expert" on qualified tuition programs, known as 529 plans. For parents looking for a tax-advantaged way to save for their children's education, this site is a one-stop-shop for information about 529 plans and referrals to plan advisers in your state. You also can order Hurley's book, "The Best Way to Save for College--A Complete Guide to 529 Plans,"
and MSN Money
"These are great for someone who's just getting started (investing)," Orman says of SmartMoney and MSN Money's mutual fund comparison tools. At SmartMoney.com, click the Funds
tab near the top of the screen. At moneycentral.msn.com, click the Investing
tab and then Research Wizard
under the Funds
menu in the column along the left side of the page. From these two starting points, visitors can choose from a number of user-friendly, yet powerful, tools for evaluating investments. Orman particularly likes SmartMoney's Fund Snapshots
feature (accessed via a link under the Tools & Research
heading on the left side of the page), where you can enter a fund symbol or name and get an at-a-glance "scorecard" grading the fund in five areas on a scale of one to five. Click the Return
tab (above the scorecard) to view a graph that compares your fund's performance against the performance of other funds or key indexes you specify. The MSN Money site has a similar "snapshot" feature (choose Snapshot
under Fund Research
in the left-hand column), providing essential information and a five-star rating system. Try out the Comparison
feature (accessed via a link under Research Wizard
on the left side of the page), which lets investors compare a fund to one or two of its peers to see how it stacks up against other options in its category. "These tools make it easy for somebody to make a decision," says Orman. And isn't that what a tool is supposed to do?
Ed Slott, CPA (certified public accountant), was named "the best" source for IRA (individual retirement account) advice by The Wall Street Journal
and called "America's IRA expert" by Mutual Funds Magazine
. Slott is the author of "The Retirement Savings Time Bomb and How to Defuse It"
and Ed Slott's IRA Advisor
, a monthly IRA newsletter. He regularly presents continuing professional education seminars about IRA distribution planning and estate planning at major conferences. His Web site
also can help.
The pro's picks:
"Cracking Your Retirement Nest Egg (Without Scrambling Your Finances)"
by Margaret Malaspina
"I like this book because it hits the important main points (of tapping your retirement accounts) without delving so deeply into any one single topic that it becomes intimidating to the reader," says Slott. Malaspina's book covers such retirement issues as plan types, rolling over accounts, and avoiding taxes.
Eric Tyson is a best-selling personal finance author whose books include "Personal Finance for Dummies," "Investing for Dummies,"
and "Mutual Funds for Dummies."
(He also is the only author to have four of his books simultaneously on BusinessWeek's
business book bestseller list.) More than four million people nationwide read his syndicated newspaper column, Investor's Guide
. Tyson was a featured speaker at a White House conference about retirement planning.
The pro's picks:
Nolo, a publisher of do-it-yourself law (books, software, and forms), promotes "everyday law for everyday people." What Tyson likes about Nolo's approach is "that they cut through the legal jargon" and present the law in plain English. By demystifying legal issues, Nolo helps consumers make wise choices. If they do come up against a legal issue, they have the knowledge to determine whether or not they need to hire a lawyer. Nolo's products span virtually every area of the law.
"A Random Walk Down Wall Street"
by Burton Malkiel
One of Tyson's favorite books is this updated investment classic, in print for 30 years. In a nutshell, Malkiel discourages any attempts at market timing and advises investors to "buy and hold" a diversified portfolio heavy on index funds that passively mirror the market. Though his approach is not radical, it's brought success to many long-term investors.
Tyson is a self-proclaimed fan of mutual fund giant Vanguard because of the investor-friendly resources it offers. Visitors to the Planning & Advice
section of the Vanguard site can access a library of PlainTalk®
investment guides that offer information and steps you can take to achieve your goals. Information also is provided in printed form, and as Webcasts.
After more than 29 years in the commercial banking industry, Susan Keating now heads up the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC)
, the nonprofit organization that sets the national standard for quality credit counseling, debt reduction services, and education for financial wellness. Visitors to NFCC's Web site can access debt management, budgeting, and home buying information and materials, and locate a credit counseling or housing counseling agency in their area.
The pro's picks:
and Freddie Mac
Keating thinks that these two Web sites, and the organizations behind them, can be a great help to consumers, "since home buying is such a big part of life."
While neither Fannie Mae nor Freddie Mac is a direct housing lender, both housing finance companies' sites include sections specifically for home buyers. Information and materials include credit reporting facts, calculators, and work sheets to help you figure out how much house you can afford, guidelines to help you choose the home loan that best meets your needs, a database of lenders, and much more.
Now that you know what personal finance resources the pros think are tops, take the time to check them out. Ultimately, the greatest tool for achieving your financial goals is your own commitment to learn and take action.
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