Personal Finance Newsletter: Cliffs Notes for Your Money

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, October 4, 2009

It used to be that our personal finances were so uncomplicated -- a simple bank account, 30-year mortgage, company pension.

That was then.

This is now: Our personal finances come with frustration, complication and financial products that seem incomprehensible. Just trying to understand -- and remember -- the new consumer protections for credit cards is enough to give yourself a headache.

With so much information to grasp and so many scam artists to avoid, you need CliffsNotes for your money, much like the guides that have helped students interpret complex literary works.

Well, as it turns out, there is the equivalent for personal finance. For the Color of Money Book Club selection for October, I'm recommending a monthly newsletter -- Consumer Reports Money Adviser -- which is as informative as it is visually appealing. The newsletter is published by Consumers Union, a nonprofit group that also publishes the wonderful Consumer Reports magazine.

The newsletter, which cannot be purchased at the newsstand, costs $29 for a 12-month subscription. To subscribe online, go to You can also order by telephone at (800) 234-1970.

The typically 17-page newsletter covers personal finance topics in short, engaging articles -- from credit to investing to saving to insurance to real estate to retirement planning to taxes. In every issue, you'll find money tips. You'll find "Savings and Loans," a feature highlighting the best rates for putting money aside or borrowing. Two of my favorite features are "Behind the Hype" and "Gimmicks and Gotchas." Both expose the misleading ways companies try to get you to buy something.

"Wading through the fine print, hidden terms and other gotchas on mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts and student loans can be daunting for even the savviest consumer," wrote Noreen Perrotta in her editor's notes for the September issue.

Amen to that.

I was particularly interested in a feature story in the current issue that evaluates which strategy is best for paying off credit card debt. The options, as analyzed by the newsletter:

-- Pay off the card with the highest interest rate first. Mathematically, this option will result in the lowest amount of interest paid.

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