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Published: Tuesday, 5/8/2007

Online sources for building financial literacy

It was about as nice a "thanks-for-nothing" note as I have ever received.

Grace M. in Oklahoma said it was "no help at all" to suggest that consumers understand several key financial issues without giving them any resources to bone up.

"I'm one of those people trying to become smart about these things," Grace wrote in an e-mail. "I want to know more about all of those subjects. The least you could have done is say where people can go for more information."

Even though it is no longer "Financial Literacy Month," I'll try to make up for my shortcomings.

The column to which she was referring said that you are not financially literate unless you understand the way in which the following issues affect you: Debt (particularly credit cards), home ownership, investing in the stock market and elsewhere, insurance, banking, retirement savings, budgeting and checkbook management, asset allocation/diversification, Social Security, and taxes. I probably should have included estate planning too.

Although plenty of books have been written on each of those subjects, Grace was looking for a quick, unbiased Web site where she could gain a bit of knowledge.

Hoping to help her and the many others who suggested a similar follow-up here are some places to go to make sure you qualify as being financially literate:

•Debt/credit cards -

Whether you are looking to shop for a better deal on credit or trying to understand how universal default clauses work against consumers, there are several sites to choose from. My personal favorites are BankRate.com and CardTrak.com.

•Home ownership - The U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission has terrific resources on all of the subjects, but I particularly like the home ownership section at www.mymoney.gov because it includes links to materials from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., among others, and it covers a range of subjects, including the value of home improvements and guides to various types of mortgages.

•Investing - For basic information without the hype and sales pitch, the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission www.sec.gov, is a good place to start. Its "online publications for investors" cover the basics.

•Retirement savings -

The educational materials at Morningstar.com are hard to beat, especially for issues such as figuring out how tax-advantaged savings works.

The "personal finance" section at the site includes a series of workshops, backed up with reading recommendations just in case you don't just want to qualify as literate but prefer to be expert in the financial basics.

•Asset allocation/diversifi

cation - The SEC and Morningstar sites offer information on these subjects.

•Banking and checkbook management - My pick here is the Banking Basics publication from the Federal Reserve. Written to provide an overview of the banking system for teenagers, it gives a solid underpinning to anyone's banking knowledge. It is in the "education resources" section of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Web site, www.bos.frb.org.

•Social Security - Go to the source, SocialSecurity.gov.

•Taxes - Again, go to the source, www.irs.gov.

•Estate planning - I can't say that the National Association of Financial Estate Planning has no self-interest, as it clearly wants to promote the idea of sound estate planning, but its Web site, www.nafep.com, does a good job of laying out the basics without pushing specific products or concepts.

Once you know the basics, consider a visit to www.help4srs.org, run by an elder-law advocacy group that has straight-talk information that will help seniors not only with estate planning but also all end-of-life concerns without falling for rip-offs and scams.

Achieving financial literacy won't be as easy as visiting these sites, but if you put in some work at each and dedicate yourself to learning, there's little doubt that you will be financially literate the next time the national month celebrating the subject rolls around.

Charles Jaffe is a senior columnist for MarketwatchYour Money



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