Here are my nominations for the 10 best ideas in saving and spending today. Some are new, some are old. But all of them well serve the hard-working, tight-money life, where simplicity matters and every nickel counts.
(1) Variable-Rate, High-Interest Savings Accounts. For savings of $2,500 and up, choose money-market accounts at banks and savings and loan associations, or money-market mutual funds. There's no strong reason to pick one over the other; convenience is what matters most. Both now pay in the area of 8 to 8.5 percent. On savings under $2,500, banks and S&Ls pay only 5.25 to 5.5 percent, so your only high-interest choice is a money-market mutual fund.
(2) Telephone Switch Funds, for investments. Many mutual-fund management companies sell a variety of investments--stock funds, bond funds, money-market funds--and let you switch your money from one to the another with just a telephone call. This is the easiest and quickest way to manage your investments as market conditions change.
(3) Individual Retirement Accounts. You can put away up to $2,000 of your earnings a year and pay no income taxes on the money until it's withdrawn at retirement. Where to find $2,000? If you can't accumulate it over the year, then borrow it. Repaying the loan then becomes a form of forced saving. The interest you pay on the loan is tax deductible, if you itemize on your tax return.
(4) NOW Accounts. These checking accounts pay up to 5.25 percent interest on specified balances. Many institutions require that you keep a minimum balance to qualify for a NOW account; there may also be fees that reduce your effective yield. Nevertheless, NOWs generally put you money ahead.
But tread cautiously with the new Super NOWs that advertise high variable interest rates on balances of $2,500 and up. These accounts charge a blizzard of fees on smaller deposits that can cancel out the higher interest rate. A study of 47 Super NOWs done by Donoghue's Moneyletter found that 34 percent of them paid less than 5.25 percent, after check fees and service charges were deducted. The study assumed a $500 average balance above the required minimum and 20 checks a month.
(5) Payroll Savings Plans. I have found no better way of saving money than through payroll savings, where employers offer it. A specified amount of money is deducted automatically from each paycheck and deposited in a savings vehicle. Your savings build up painlessly and automatically.
(6) Smaller Houses. Compared with the average, newly built house in 1978, today's houses are smaller, less apt to have fireplaces and basements, and more likely to have no garage. That translates into a slight loss of comfort but a gain today in affordability. Down-sized houses, financed with 12 percent FHA mortgages, have made it possible for thousands of young people to buy their first home this year, and start building up equity in real estate.
(7) Term and Group Life Insurance. This form of coverage is the cheapest way of protecting your family from the financial consequences of your death. You can buy far more term insurance per dollar than whole-life insurance--so for a given expenditure, term insurance yields your family a higher income.
(8) Public Universities. Because of the backing they get from the state, public universities are about half the price of private colleges, and offer an excellent education. Ideally, enough financial aid should be available at private schools to make them competitive with public universities, and that's sometimes the case. Sometimes the private school is the only one offering exactly the curriculum a student wants. But where the quality of education is the same, but the dollars are different, it makes more sense to choose the lower-cost public school than to take the private school and graduate with a huge loan.
(9) Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). If your medical bills are not covered under an employer plan, your best alternative is an HMO. It costs more than a Blue Cross policy, but gives more comprehensive coverage. For older people, HMOs may offer the best form of medi-gap insurance, to pay the bills not covered by Medicare.
(10) Auto Loans from Car Dealers. You can still finance certain compact and subcompact cars for under 10 percent at an auto dealership, compared with 12 to 14 percent at most banking institutions. It's hard to know how much longer this offer will last, so take it while you can.