SORTING OUT SAVINGS AND INVESTMENT OPTIONS

* For many people, understanding investment precepts doesn't extend much beyond opening a bank account. Stocks, bonds, and risk analysis are all part of a nether world they have never dipped into.

But as more and more companies offer defined contribution plans, rather than traditional pensions, the burden of investment decisionmaking falls squarely on the employee.

As Boyd Griffin, president of Retirement Advisors Inc. of New York puts it, employees ``are being asked to manage money as [competently] as a professional money manager managed it in a pension plan.''

Turning the 16 million 401(k) participants into savvy investors is providing fodder for a whole industry of newsletters, investment seminars, and educational software.

Standard and Poor's ``Your Financial Future,'' Money magazine's ``Managing Your Future,'' and the recently launched ``401(k) Dimensions,'' published by the Hearst Corporation, are three newsletters offered to companies sponsoring 401(k) plans.

Some mutual fund companies, like Boston-based Fidelity Investments, both manage retirement plans for companies as well as provide educational material. Fidelity's Stages magazine, sent free to employees of its defined contribution plan clients, is like Personal Finance 101 with more color. New participants receive a series of small flash-card-sized leaflets explaining investment terms in layman's language. Stock is likened to a slice of pizza; bonds are like IOUs.

The magazine is full of examples of ordinary people putting their finances in order, not just saving for retirement. One article deals with a couple in their 20s who spent themselves into debt and then sat dreading creditors calls. Tracing their path to solvency, the story lists numbers to call and tells what to do once the bills are paid.

The latest addition to Fidelity's Stages Communications Program is a software package introduced last summer. Designed to help people project their financial needs in retirement, the program shows how close various investment strategies will get them to that goal.

Like a software package teaching children to read, bars leap up palm trees and colorful backdrops encourage adults to tackle their personal finances with confidence.

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