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Resources help those who help themselves

How can I find someone to help with my finances? We all want to know, but in most cases, the inescapable answer is that we would be better off learning more about our own financial affairs so that we can handle them ourselves.

"The best thing people can do is to educate themselves," said Shelley Freeman, director of personal financial planning at Shearson Lehman Brothers. "And the best way to do that is to get some good primers and get organized. That will show you so much about your debt habits, your spending habits, what you know and what you need to learn."

There are plenty of resources to get you started. The good ones are written in plain English so that a determined beginner can use them. Ms. Freeman, who studied English literature in college and picked up her knowledge of personal finance on the job, says she still favors basic primers.

Her favorites _ and the only ones she keeps in her office _ are some booklets from the National Center for Women and Retirement Research at Long Island University in Southampton, N.Y., and some brochures published by the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington.

Ms. Freeman particularly likes a workbook published by the research center, Looking Ahead to Your Financial Future ($10.95), and an hourlong videotape, Women and Money: Things Your Mother Never Told You About Finances ($29.95). Call (800) 426-7386 for information.

Many of the AARP publications can be obtained without charge from AARP Fulfillment, 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049. AARP Publications and A/V Programs: The Complete Collection lists all publications and videos. When requesting the guide, ask for it by name and stock number, C48.

There are a number of other good sources for specific types of information. Perhaps the best source on credit cards is a kit called the Credit Card Locator, published by H. Spencer Nilson, publisher of a credit card industry newsletter called The Nilson Report.

The Locator names the nine best credit cards divided into three categories: one for those who routinely roll over part of their balance, one for those who sometimes roll over part of the balance and the third for those who always pay in full. It also provides names of easy-to-get cards in each category.

It includes a calculator wheel that shows how much interest is paid each year depending on card use. It offers tips on how to get credit and how to save money on the cards you are already using, and it lists rates and telephone numbers for nearly 1,000 cards.

Nilson is updating the kit and will have the new version ready by late October. It is $19 from Consumer Credit Rating Service, P.O. Box 5219, Santa Monica, CA 90405.

If you are already in trouble because you've used credit too loosely, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, with 745 offices throughout the country, offers budgeting help at no charge or for a small fee. A counselor will help you work with your creditors and hammer out a repayment plan. Call (800) 388-2227 to find an office near you.

Nolo Press in Berkeley, Calif., (510) 549-1976, publishes a number of good books dealing with financial and legal do-it-yourself projects as well as a quarterly newsletter, Nolo News. The newsletter is offered at no charge to anyone who buys a Nolo book. Otherwise, it costs $12 for two years.

"There is always some lead issue in the newsletter, like "Rebuilding Your Credit,'

" said JoAnne Skinner, publicity director of Nolo. "We also review a number of books in these areas." Two good books recently published by Nolo are Stand Up to the IRS. ($19.95) and Divorce and Money ($19.95).

One of the most difficult areas in which to find good, impartial information is Social Security, along with Medicare and Medicare supplement insurance. AARP offers a good guide aimed at women but including information for all retirees: The Social Security Book: What Every Woman Absolutely Needs to Know, Stock No. D 14117.

A second resource in this area is the 1992 Mercer Guide to Social Security & Medicare (Independent Publisher's Group, Chicago, $6.95). This guide is written by Robert J. Myers, who was chief actuary of the Social Security Administration from 1947 to 1970, and Dale Detlefs, who heads the Social Security division of William M. Mercer Inc., benefits consultants.

Investors, even beginners, would be well served by the publications of Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based rating service for mutual funds. The company publishes a loose-leaf sourcebook that lists and rates (with one to five stars) more than 1,200 of the largest funds. It includes an excellent _ and accessible _ one-page synopsis of each fund. A three-month trial subscription costs $55.

Morningstar recently began publishing a monthly newsletter, The 5-Star Investor, which "attempts to take subscribers through the steps of assembling and monitoring a mutual fund portfolio," said editor John Rekenthaler. A one-year subscription is $65. Call (800) 876-5005.

Some basics that you will probably want on your bookshelf are Making the Most of Your Money, by Jane Bryant Quinn (Simon & Schuster, 1991, $27.50), and Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms, by Barron's Educational Series, (800) 645-3476. Barron's Dictionary of Insurance Terms is helpful, particularly for employee benefit and retirement issues. The Barron's books are $9.95 each.