Shhhh. Be quiet and come closer so I can whisper the magic question in your ear: Interested in a hot stock tip?

You are? Then read on, because here comes some investment advice that you can't afford to miss.

Based on a random sampling of stockbrokers and investment advisers in Washington and New York, the hottest tip available for investors looking to make money in the market is to pause, take a deep breath and figure out what you are doing there in the first place. According to these investment professionals, the key to building a balanced portfolio structured to achieve one's goals begins with figuring out the goals, not the stocks.

"Most people are better off spending time thinking about what it is they have and what they need rather than worrying about how to implement," said Abby Cohen, an investment policy analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. "People worry about should I buy this stock or this certificate of deposit, while ignoring the basic issue of what they are trying to accomplish."

"They have to get their goals set before they can do anything else," agreed Stephen Cordill, director of financial and retirement planning services for Prudential-Bache Securities Inc. "The first thing they have to do is set a goal in terms of dollar amount and in terms of time. How much do they want to have by the time they need it? If they are saving for a house, when do they want to buy the house and how much will it cost? If they are saving for college, what schools are they looking at and what will be the cost and timing?"

Unfortunately, successful investing requires two things, neither of which are very much fun: discipline and patience. In an age of instant everything, building a portfolio that meets investment goals remains a long-run proposition, more akin to running a marathon than a dash.

For young couples or single investors, portfolio management often begins with a careful review to determine whether the basic needs have been met. Beyond food, clothing and shelter, financial planners agree that the basics include adequate health insurance, life insurance and a cash cushion.

While the size of the cash cushion may vary depending on the stability of income and personal preference, all of the financial experts agreed that an adequate cash reserve in the bank or in a money market account is a prerequisite for buying stocks and bonds and real estate.

"You've got to have cash; sooner or later something is going to come up," said Les Silverstone, senior vice president and manager of one of Dean Witter's downtown Washington branches. "You have to have adequate reserves financially speaking and emotionally speaking."

"A general rule of thumb is people should have three months of after-tax earnings accessible in a money market or checking account," said Prudential's Cordill. "Some people go up to six months."

After achieving these goals, one can proceed with the setting of other financial goals. A realistic determination of the major costs, such as housing and college education, can provide a framework for determining how much time an investor has to achieve the needed returns.

Generally speaking, the longer one has until a major cash outlay is needed, the safer it is to take bigger risks in return for bigger potential rewards. A sin to avoid in successful portfolio management is making speculative investments with money that may be needed in the near future to meet expenses. The reason is that the immediate need for capital may force an investor to take a loss by selling an investment prematurely, at a time when it has declined in value.

The best advice for individual investors, according to financial experts, is to put aside enough capital to meet expected expenses plus savings, and then make long-term investments in the stock and bond markets and in real estate.

Many individual investors learn this lesson only after taking their lumps, trying to outguess the cyclical and unpredictable movements in the price of stocks and bonds.

The recent stock market collapse provided some evidence that individual investors and professional advisers who try to outguess short-term swings in the stock market can sometimes find themselves with long-term headaches.

Last month, prior to the Oct. 19 collapse in stock prices, Drexel's Cohen described her rosy outlook for stock prices this way:

"I think people should recognize we have had a five-year bull market in stocks. The moment the sun comes up in the morning, you are getting closer and closer to the nighttime. I don't think we are at evening yet. I think we are at midafternoon. ... We think the stock market will continue to do well and we are still advising our clients to be invested in stocks."

Last week, Cohen updated her post-Black Monday analysis, adding, "The basic assumption we are making is there will be no recession. The market still looks attractive to us. This {Black Monday} will scare a lot of people away from the market, but any personal investor has to recognize that stock market investment has to be a long-term investment and this certainly brings that home."

Individuals who invest a fixed sum or percentage of income in stocks or in a mutual fund each year for the long-term, avoiding panic during downturns and unbridled optimism during robust markets, will find they are able to meet investment goals with greater certainty than those who try to achieve perfect market timing, experts said.

Among the suggested strategies is "dollar cost averaging," a method of buying a fixed sum of stocks or mutual funds each year which results over the long-term in purchases at an average cost.

"If somebody could put away $5,000 a year, {they should} do it every year and ignore the market," Silverstone said. "I would pick a good mutual fund and just sort of make a pact with myself to put it away year in and year out. If somebody said I don't want a mutual fund, you can pick five stocks and dollar-cost average with them."

Mutual funds offer individual investors a way to invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks. The funds, which own many different stocks, also offer individuals ready access to professional money management. For investors content with achieving average stock market returns and paying management or sales fees, these funds have become an attractive alternative.

While younger investors frequently believe they can afford to take bigger risks in the stock market and elsewhere than those nearing retirement, both young and old would be wise to focus on preservation of capital, experts said.

By avoiding undue risks to capital, investors can build up savings over time and put their money to work, possibly earning interest in a bond or certificate of deposit or growing in a stock mutual fund.

Many investors find that homeownership is both an important financial and psychological step in portfolio building; the experts emphasized that buying a home is part of an overall process of setting investment goals and not a separate step to be viewed in a vacuum.

Often investors borrow heavily to purchase homes, taking advantage of the tax deduction for interest expenses to subsidize the cost.

"Many people have taken advantage of the major tax shelter available to them, which is home ownership," Drexel's Cohen said. "I think that for the young family you have to talk in terms of home ownership."

"People have been using as a guideline 20 to 25 percent of gross income and that typically includes the mortgage payment plus {real estate} taxes," said Winthrop H. Smith Jr., regional director for the mid-Atlantic states for Merrill Lynch.

A sensible part of any long-term financial portfolio management includes retirement planning. Such a strategy may include investments in company savings and pension plans, investment in individual retirement accounts up to $2,000 a year.

As retirement approaches, experts recommend a more conservative investment philosophy that takes note of the fact that without earned income in the future, investors cannot replace capital easily.

All of the specific decisions regarding implementation can be made alone or with the help of a stockbroker or financial planner. It is important, however, to recognize that the ultimate decisions are left to the investor, not the adviser.

As a result, picking a planner or stockbroker who can be relied upon is crucial for many people.

"Look to see if that person is going to discover what {your} needs are rather than just trying to sell {you} a product," Merrill's Smith said.

"Take the person who tries to understand {your} needs. If you walked into a physician and said 'I have a sore throat,' you would be skeptical if he said take an aspirin before he diagnosed you to be sure you don't have serious cancer. The same {should be} true of your financial health.

"The {securities} industry has a 'know your customer' rule. The reverse is true; know your adviser. The client shouldn't ever be pressured into buying anything. There is no reason you have to do something today. ... {And} ask a lot about the firm."

"I think individuals make a mistake if they go to a broker or to a financial planner and expect that planner to give them the answers," Cohen said.

"I could take two families, with identical perceived needs and future goals, and approach their problems differently because one family might be very risk averse and the other not. People have to come to terms with themselves as to whether they feel comfortable putting capital at risk," Cohen added.

(A cautionary note: stockbrokers tend to recommend stocks, real estate agents tend to recommend real estate and so forth. A combination of advisers may therefore be most effective.)

Part of building a balanced portfolio involves using common sense to measure decisions along the way. Several of the advisers have favorite tests or sayings that can be useful in the common sense school of investing.

"One of the cardinal rules of investment is you don't want to put all of your eggs in one basket," Cohen said, emphasizing a diversification theme. "So many people make that mistake."

But Cohen also recommends another common sense rule: "If something sounds too good, it probably is. If pressure is being exerted by the salesman to move quickly or all will be lost, it is better to forget about it."

"What I try to do with clients is try on a lot of different hats and he will figure out which hat is comfortable," Silverstone said. "Patience is usually what people are short of," he added.

"People should formulate their goals, pay attention as early as possible and start a savings program," Cordill said. "From there on it is a matter of self-discipline."

One aspect of portfolio management is recognizing that it is after-tax returns that count, rather than pretax income.

In some situations, this may create a desire for tax-exempt municipal bonds, rather than taxable bonds.

In this domain, the common sense rule to remember is that investments ought to pass the test of making sense on an economic basis. If they are attractive strictly on the basis of tax strategy, it may be best to steer clear.

Tax laws change over time, and so do investment goals.

The financial advisers emphasized that even though building a portfolio over the course of a lifetime is an evolutionary process that must take account of such changes, there are certain fundamentals concerning growing older, raising a family and retiring that give rise to highly predictable future events. And it is better to begin planning for these sooner, rather than later.

"You don't want to see your kids in their sophomore year of high school and then worry about college financing or be 62 and then worry about retirement planning," Cohen said. "You have to assume responsibility for your financial future.