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MUTUAL FUNDS OFFER ADVANTAGES FOR THE SMALLER, LOW-RISK INVESTOR

"It takes money to make money." "Money comes to money." We've all heard these adages and we've seen them played out daily on Wall Street, as carefully invested fortunes multiply. And, to borrow another saying, the rich get richer. In fact, the overnight profit on some investments can equal or surpass many Americans' annual income.

But many of us have a hard time paying the rent or mortgage - never mind throwing thousands of dollars into stocks or bonds. We have begun to think of investment as a high-stakes, high-dollar game, not for the "great unwashed" who are just trying to make ends meet. There are ways to get in the game, however, and while you may not double your income overnight, you may be able to start putting together a tidy retirement package, or just a safety net for the future."I have people who don't have large amounts of money," said John Flores, a financial advisor with Prudential Securities. "But they know they have to invest to supplement their retirement. A simple savings account or CD won't do for them. They want a little larger return."

For investors who can only put a little bit aside every month, Flores and most other advisors suggest mutual funds, an easy, low-cost, low-risk way to put your money to work.

"The object is to accumulate money," said Charles Fahy, Senior Vice President with Oppenheimer and Co., Inc., Houston.

"The attractiveness of the mutual fund industry is that it's mechanically set up for small dollars. That's why it has evolved into such a huge business. It's ideal for the American consumer," said Fahy.

A mutual fund is essentially a pooled money resource in which the fund manager invests in carefully chosen stocks and/or bonds.

"When you compare it to a standard stock," said Flores, "it's a safe investment because of its diversified nature. Statistics show that a mutual fund invested in blue chip stocks averages a ten percent return."

But mutual funds are more than just a safe investment. They are a good way to develop some discipline in saving money, according to Fahy.

"Think of an account where you just put in a thousand dollars a year - 83 dollars a month - for ten years. Few of us even put the money away, let alone invest it. Then add the investment factor. Even at a bond rate of return, historically eight percent, you would have $15,645. If you invest in stocks, that figure would go up to about $22,045," said Fahy.

But which type of mutual fund should you invest in?

"I think there's very little difference in funds," said Fahy. "Obviously, size is critical to the point that they have at least four or five. Conventional thinking is that people would feel better with a mutual fund that has a choice of bonds, stocks and international. Any fund that has a stock fund has already put you in the top 20 percent of results."

You have to look at your own needs to determine what is best for you, but here are some guidelines:

- Don't overextend yourself. The beauty of mutual funds is that they are affordable, some as low as $25 or $50 a month.

"The classic way," said Fahy, "is to find mutual funds that have a low minimum. Any number of them have a hundred dollar minimum, some with $250, some with $500. The whole world opens up at $1,000. It's rare, but every so often you can pick up a Standard and Poor stock guide and find a $25 mutual fund."

- Know what you want it to accomplish. Do you want a retirement fund, or something that you can draw from sooner?

- Steer clear of "tax free" investments. "Tax free investments destroy the power of your higher rate of return," said Fahy. "It's actually more profitable to take the higher rate of the taxable fund and pay the taxes on it."

Fahy also warned against funds that buy into the bond market as a way of diversifying.

"There's an innocence to the warning of not putting all your eggs in one basket," said Fahy. "Some people think that by buying stocks and bonds together in a fund, they are getting the diversification they need. In reality, you are getting plenty of diversity just by buying into a fund that invests in a number of different stocks. The bonds actually lower your average return. Stocks work better than any other investments, so load up on stocks in a mutual fund."

And if it's a retirement fund you're after, make sure you get a tax-deferred mutual fund, or annuity. A tax deferred fund works like an IRA, with many of the same rules applying for early withdrawal.

Probably the most important advice for getting into a mutual fund is, "the sooner, the better."

"I can't think of a better way to accumulate real money than systematically, at $25, $50 or $100 a month. Do it for 40 years, and it's a guaranteed way to become a millionaire."

What better gift to give yourself and your family than a retirement fund that will let you retire not just comfortably, but prosperously, for just a few dollars a month?