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Investing, like dieting, requires discipline

I've often been struck by the parallels between acquiring and maintaining a healthy net worth and acquiring and maintaining a healthy weight.

Some of us are lucky enough to inherit money or good genes that ease the process, but the rest of us have to work at it. Even though we'll never be billionaires or super models, we can improve on our current condition. And if we start young enough and work at it consistently, the results in both departments can be downright impressive.

Yet many of us dream of an easy way out. We want to believe there is a painless way to be rich and thin. Why else would we fall for get-rich-quick and lose-weight-fast schemes? Saving diligently and investing wisely are about as appealing as cutting back portions and exercising faithfully. We hope against hope that the people on the infomercials really have discovered a better way. Some of us apparently even respond to those e-mails promising we can make money at home or lose weight while showering.

Knowledge is a big help, whether it's knowledge of nutrition and health or credit and investments. Knowing how things work can help us make good decisions. But successful application of that knowledge takes motivation and self-discipline. That's why our odds of success improve if we take an approach that fits with our personalities and counteracts our particular weaknesses.

Many of us need structure to stay on the right path. The less we have to think about the pain, the better off we are. Saving through payroll deduction and automatic drafts from a checking account can be as helpful as a strict food plan.

Goals help us maintain our focus and give us strength to resist temptation. Write down, draw or simply visualize what your dream looks like _ retirement, a college education for your children, a house or a fit body. Post your picture or a symbol of your goal where you can see it every day.

If you have no willpower, don't put yourself in the path of temptation. Leave your credit cards at home. Find alternatives to shopping and eating as recreation or emotional therapy. Don't log onto eBay.

Check your progress periodically. If it's a budget or a diet you are trying to follow, weekly weigh-ins will tell you if you're on track. Longer-term goals should be reviewed once or twice a year, or even quarterly if you feel the need. If you find yourself off track, focus on getting back on track rather than spending energy feeling bad about stock market losses in your 401(k) account or the extra pounds you gained when you hurt your knee and stopped exercising.

If you need help, hire a financial adviser or personal trainer to get you headed in the right direction. Just don't expect to achieve your goals without effort on your part.

Q. I invested a small amount with a company that offers much better yields than I can get locally. Recently, I received information from them offering three-year investment notes with an annual yield of 8.33 percent. Each package I receive from them refers to a prospectus, but I cannot read it because I have serious eye problems. Can you let me know about investing in these notes? The rate is great but I do not want to be fooled.

Companies offer notes such as these to the public because they can borrow money from investors at lower rates than they could borrow from a bank. These notes and those that many other companies issue are nothing more than unsecured loans from you to the company.

When you see a financial instrument offering above-average yields, you can safely assume that it involves above-average risks. The higher the interest rate, the lower the credit rating of the company issuing them and the more risk you are taking.

This type of investment is suitable only for a sophisticated investor who is capable not only of reading the prospectus but of understanding it and of evaluating the risk. If you cannot do this, you should stay away from this investment and others like it. If you think the return is worth the risk, don't invest any more than you can afford to lose.

_ Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.