Shopping by telephone can be a convenient alternative to shopping by mail or in person--especially with so many companies now offering to accept your order 24 hours a day on toll-free 800 numbers.

The idea may be particularly tempting for Washington-area residents now thinking about back-to-school clothes for children and dreading the hassle of a shopping trip in the heat and humidity of August.

In taking advantage of ordering by telephone, however, there is one point to consider: You lose some important consumer rights.

The Federal Trade Commission Mail Order Rule, for example, requires companies to ship your order within the time promised in their advertisement. If no time period is promised, the company must ship your mail order within 30 days of the date they receive it, unless you are contacted and agree to a specific delay. When there is a shipment delay with a mail order, the company must send you an "option notice," giving you the option of either consenting to the delay or canceling the order and receiving a refund.

None of these delivery rules applies when you order by telephone.

If you prefer to order by mail but have only the company's telephone number, call and ask for the mailing address. And while you have the company on the phone, ask about its refund policy, whether the product you want is available and what the total cost of your order will be. Then place your order by mail.

Sometimes, to save yourself time and effort, you may want to order by telephone anyway. If you do, keep a record of the company's name, address and telephone number; the price, description and item numbers of merchandise you ordered; the total cost of the order; whether you paid with check, credit card or C.O.D.; the method of shipment; the date you placed the order and the anticipated delivery date. It also might be useful to keep a copy of the advertisement or catalogue that led you to place the order.

If you have a problem with a telephone order, first try to resolve your dispute with the company. If that doesn't work, contact your local consumer protection agency, the Postal Inspector and the Direct Marketing Association, 6 E. 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10017.

Despite a nationwide strike by nearly 700,000 telephone company employes, you shouldn't have any problem getting through when you dial an 800 number yourself. The delays that telephone users typically have been experiencing have occurred when they called directory assistance or sought operator assistance in placing calls.

But since the telephone network is computerized, for the most part, the calls you dial yourself--whether they are local, toll-free or toll, should go through automatically.

Next time you buy new tires, make sure they are registered with the manufacturer so that you can be notified in the event of a recall. In the past, federal law required that all tire dealers register the tires for you. But under a new federal law, independent tire dealers are required only to provide purchasers with a form bearing the identification number of the tire. It's up to the customer to complete the form with his or her name and address and mail it back to the manufacturer.

Tire outlets owned by manufacturers and brand-name retailers, however, must continue to fill out the registration forms for customers and return the forms to the manufacturers.

Are you getting new credit cards to increase your borrowing power? Depleting your savings to pay old bills? Ducking frank talk about money and credit problems with family and friends?

Those are three consumer spending patterns that suggest money trouble ahead for you, according to a new pamphlet compiled by the Bankcard Holders of America, a Washington-based consumer group that conducts educational programs about credit card use and abuse.

"Financial problems begin with basic attitudes about credit obligations," said Mark W. Hannaford, president of the group, which claims a national membership of about 140,000. "This new publication talks about consumer attitudes, and most important, gives solid advice on how to climb out--and stay out--of debt."

The brochure suggests, among other things, that consumers who are overextended confront the problem by developing a new expense budget with a specific timetable for debt reduction.

Those with severe problems should seek outside help, the brochure suggests, including face-to-face meetings with creditors to lessen payment burdens. Professional counseling, along with a program of debt consolidation, also may be advised.

For a free copy of the brochure, send your name and a self-addressed stamped business envelope to the Bankcard Holders of America, 2025 I St. NW, Suite 1022, BHA Number 3, Washington, D.C. 20006.