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GURU GIVES SOME GOOD, NOT-SO-GOOD FINANCIAL TIPS

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NAME: Charles J. Givens.

Profession: He has several. He's an executive, a diversified entrepreneur, an author and a financial planning evangelist.Claims to fame: A self-made multimillionaire, popular talk show guest and author of a best seller, "Wealth Without Risk" (Simon & Schuster).

Assessment of published advice: Mixed. Some of it is very good, but some of it makes complicated - and sometimes risky - strategies seem absurdly simple.

Givens, 48, is president of the Charles J. Givens Organization of Altamonte Springs, Fla. - reputedly the nation's biggest financial planning firm, with 160,000 clients. He's also a flamboyant marketeer who owns a hodgepodge of 64 businesses and made and lost $1 million three times when he was in his 20s.

These days, Givens spreads his gospel about the abysmal state of Americans' personal finances. Ninety percent of us, regardless of our income, live paycheck to paycheck, he says. This may be an exaggeration, but most financial planning experts agree that personal balance sheets are in bad shape.

Predictably, Givens has a solution to the problem. For starters, buy his book, he says. Then he'll strongly urge you to consider joining his organization, which offers 300 financial planning strategies on video or audio tape, the right to attend workshops nationwide and a monthly 16-page newsletter. It costs $395, plus $20 in dues four times annually.

"Ours is the only personal financial planning firm that covers everything about money," Givens boasts. "We discuss how to buy auto insurance and get the best rates on MasterCard, how to save on your taxes and how to get the most out of your investments. We offer a total, lifelong financial plan to maximize the effectiveness of your earning power."

Yes, this sounds like hype - that's the way Givens talks - but his 413-page book is actually stocked with considerable substance. Here's a small sampling of some good nuggets of advice:

-If you have a fair amount of credit-card debt, try to consolidate some of it on one card with a higher credit limit and a lower interest rate. Many institutions still charge sky-high 18 percent to 19 percent annual interest on credit cards. Givens' book lists institutions that have regularly offered cards for 11 percent to 14 percent a year to out-of-staters, including Arkansas Federal Savings and Peoples Bank in Bridgeport, Conn. (If you own a home, also consider cutting credit costs by consolidating debt in a tax-deductible home-equity loan.)

-Increase deductibles on your auto insurance to help cut the premium. "Nine out of 10 drivers carry low deductibles because it makes them feel more secure," Givens says. "But they're paying way too much extra. Even a lousy driver would have a hard time collecting damages equaling all the extra money he spends on higher premiums."

-If your company offers a 401(k) savings plan - and many do - take advantage of it. Most people do not. They're forsaking a tax-deferred savings plan, including one typically accompanied by a company contribution. It's probably the best vehicle available to help build a retirement nest egg.

-Think about starting a small part-time business in your home to generate additional income, as well as additional tax deductions. If you have children, consider hiring them in the business and paying them tax-deductible salaries, instead of allowances. The business can easily be an extension of a hobby. It might be a Christmas tree ornament business or a baby-sitting service. What about becoming a part-time representative for a direct sales company?

Unfortunately, some of Givens' advice leaves much to be desired. For example, he tells people not to use financial planners unless they have amassed wealth by virtue of their advice. "How can you learn to manage money from someone who never made much?" he asks. This is nonsense. It's akin to saying that a doctor can't treat a disease unless he or she has actually contracted it.

Givens also fails to caution people about seeking tax breaks too aggressively. His tips are technically correct, but be careful about how they apply to your personal situation. "You might overstep the boundaries and face the wrath of the Internal Revenue Service," says Larry Krause, a San Francisco financial planner.

Then, too, Givens dispenses ideas that can be terribly difficult to execute, such as pruning the cost of a child's college education by buying a house near his or her campus and turning it into a minidorm managed by your offspring.

Givens' worst tip probably lies in the arena of investment advice. Using the prime rate as a benchmark, he urges people to put a chunk of their savings into a no-commission mutual fund family and switch their funds among stock, bond and money market funds. When the prime rate falls below 9.5 percent (it's now 10.5 percent), for example, he'd suggest putting almost all of the money into a stock fund.

That wouldn't be smart. In such a situation, the economy might well be heading into a recession, which means that stock prices would fall much further before rebounding. Meanwhile, investors would miss out on bond price appreciation, which always accompanies declining interest rates.

Givens admits that many readers probably get overwhelmed by his book. That's OK by him; it prods them to join his organization, he says. But it's also a shoddy, borderline bait-and-switch tactic.

What's the upshot? Look at a copy of "Wealth Without Risk" at your local bookstore and see how much of the advice applies to you. Despite its encyclopedic mass, it's probably a good $20 investment. But stay away from the Givens organization, even though it's not-for-profit.