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Here's a 'to do' list to help you get a handle on your personal finances

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Ever wish you could get ahead of the game when it comes to managing your personal finances?

There are a number of steps you can take to get on the right track, from organizing your papers to checking your credit reports and updating your insurance. What better time to start than with the New Year?

FIND WHAT YOU'VE GOT

People have their money stashed in a lot of different places these days -- at banks, with mutual fund companies and brokerage firms, in company retirement plans and with insurance companies.

''Make a list of all of your accounts,'' advises consumer expert Nancy Dunnan. ''For each, include the account number, the total dollar value, a contact name and the address, telephone and fax numbers.''

Dunnan, the author of ''How to Invest $50 to $5,000,'' says you should be sure to let someone in your family know where you're storing your list and suggests you put a backup copy in your safe deposit box. This will make it easier for you to reconstruct your accounts if there's a disaster, such as an earthquake, and easier for your family to find your accounts if something happens to you.

CHECK IN ON YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY

All American workers 25 and older should receive a Social Security statement based on their earnings record about three months before their birthday. It will show what wages you've been credited with and how much you can expect to get in retirement benefits.

If you don't get a statement, you can request one by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or going online at www.ssa.gov.

A good overview of the retirement savings process can be found in the booklet ''Social Security -- Basic Facts.'' It can be ordered by contacting the Consumer Information Center at 888-878-3256 or at www.pueblo.gsa.gov.

MONITOR YOUR CREDIT REPORT

The best way to determine whether your credit record is in good order -- and that you're not the victim of identity theft or other credit fraud -- is to get a copy of your credit report every year from the three major credit bureaus.

It's easiest to do this by phone or online: Equifax at 800-685-1111 or www.equifax.com; Experian at 888-EXPERIAN or 888-397-3742 or www.creditexpert.com; TransUnion at 800-888-4213 or www.transunion.com.

REVIEW YOUR RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS

The first question is, Are you maxing out your savings in your 401(k) and Individual Retirement Accounts? Deposits to these accounts are deducted from your income, thus reducing your taxes. And they grow tax-deferred, which helps them compound faster. The limits go up in 2002 to let you save more.

Dunnan suggests that instead of saving what's left in your pocket at the end of the month, pick an amount of money you want to save, and put it into the bank or mutual fund account on a regular basis. One way is an automatic plan that transfers a predetermined amount from each paycheck to your savings account.

You also need to take a look each year at whether your investments properly diversified among stocks or stock mutual funds, bonds and cash.

The Alliance for Investor Education, a nonprofit grouping of trade associations and government agencies, can help. Go to the alliance Web site at www.investoreducation.org and click on the link ''Resolve to save and invest in '02.'' That will get you a list of 10 guides to good financial planning and investing.

UPDATE YOUR INSURANCE

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 drove home the lesson that we need to be prepared for the unexpected, and that includes adequate insurance coverage.

''People should check their insurance -- really financial protection -- at least once a year,'' said Herb Perone of the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington, D.C. ''How much you need and what kind will vary through the course of your life.''

Perone pointed out, for example, that you probably need considerably more insurance if you have three children at home and a hefty mortgage than you would if your kids have graduated and the house is paid off. If you're divorced and remarried, you might need to reconsider your beneficiaries.

Perone suggests you set a regular date for your insurance review -- the first of the year, when you do your taxes or your birthday.

''Look at your life insurance, your disability coverage, long-term care policies, your 401(k) and company pension,'' he said. ''These all work together to protect you and your loved ones financially.''

The group's Web site is www.acli.com.

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