Q: In comparing mutual funds, I have been advised that no-load funds have higher maintenance fees, management fees, advertising expenses, etc. than load funds, and therefore are not actually "no-load." I have also been told that over a 10-year period, for example, the higher expenses of a no-load would be comparable to the typical 8 1/2 percent load on many funds. If this is not true, how do no-load funds pay their expenses? What's the best way to compare funds?

A:The term "no load" is really a misnomer; more appropriate terminology would be "no sales fee." Both load and no-load funds have management fees -- usually in the neighborhood of one-half percent to 1 percent of asset value. These management fees, along with advertising and selling expenses, are charged against the fund as a whole, not separately against individual investors. This is how the no-load funds generate the money to pay their expenses.

Although there are differences in management fees among funds, they are not necessarily higher for no-loads than for funds with sales fees. There are a lot of people who object to the principle of paying a sales fee when there are good funds available that don't have such charges.

But my personal investment philosophy doesn't distinguish between load and no-load funds. The really important feature is performance. If I find two absolutely identical funds, one load and the other no-load, then of course I will go with the no-load. But if a load fund looks like it will produce better results than a comparable no-load, then I have no problem with the sales fee. I don't mind paying a broker or sales representative $10 to make me $20 (after paying his fee) if I think the no-load I'm looking at may only produce $15.

The first step in selecting a fund is to find those with an investment philosophy that matches yours. You can get some ideas from the group in which they fall -- sometimes in the fund's very name, like the XYZ Growth Fund, or the ABC Government Securities Fund, or the LMNOP Income Fund. A call (most funds have 800 numbers) or letter will bring you the fund prospectus, which describes the investment objectives in some detail.

Then you can find historical data on past performance in books like Weisenberger's Investment Companies Annual or Donahue's Mutual Funds Almanac, available at many libraries. In addition, financial magazines like Forbes, Fortune, Money and Changing Times usually publish an annual review of hundreds of mutual funds, with statistical information on performance grouped by types of funds.

Load may be important to some people, but in my book the significant criteria are investment philosophy and performance when selecting a mutual fund.

Q: I am 67 years old and haven't worked since I was 30. I never paid income tax, as my husband filed a joint return. I am now divorced and am receiving $6,684 a year in alimony payments, $1,000 a year interest on my savings and $5,148 in Social Security, making a total of $12,832. Do I have to file a tax return?

A: Yes. The Social Security payments are not taxable, but the alimony and the interest income are. Those two total $7,684 -- and the 1985 filing minimum for a single person 65 or older is $4,470.

I want to comment on your statement that you never paid income tax because your husband always filed a joint return. Although your husband may have done all the paperwork every year, you must have signed the return. From the point of view of the IRS, you filed a return and paid tax every year because you were jointly responsible -- with your husband -- for the content of that return.

Too many spouses simply sign whatever their partners tell them to, without knowing what's in the return and without realizing their individual responsibilities for the content. If this particular shoe fits, stop right now. Insist on knowing -- and understanding -- the content of your 1985 tax return. It's good practice now, and particularly important because statistically wives outlive husbands, and you may end up having to take care of that chore by yourself someday.