An overview of the ways to invest money

Marshall Loeb's 1985 Money Guide, by Marshall Loeb. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 490pp. $19.95 hard cover; $12.95 paperback. For almost any financial service product or investment, there is probably at least one book that has been written about it. You want to learn about stocks? The list of books looks like a stock market table. Diamonds? Horses? Real estate? Tax shelters? Gold? Insurance? College savings plans? There are books for all of them.

But what if you don't want to read a whole book? Some people want just enough information to tell them if they need to get more information. For them, a few pages on a topic will do.

Fortunately, a few books are being published to answer this need. ``The Almanac of Investments'' (reviewed in this section in October) does this by spending no more than four or five pages discussing each of dozens of investments, including risks, tax questions, and possible pitfalls.

That almanac was preceded to the bookstores, however, by the first edition of ``Marshall Loeb's Money Guide,'' published in 1983.

As managing editor of Money, Mr. Loeb is credited with helping make that magazine more understandable and useful to the average American and, in so doing, raising its circulation. He deserves much of this credit, as do the enormous growth of interest in personal finance since the late 1970s and the advent of double-digit interest rates.

A key to the success of Money magazine is that is goes into just enough detail to fully explain savings and investment ideas, but leaves out details that would only be of use to an accountant or tax lawyer. The same philosophy seems to be behind this book, where most of the actual research was done by staff members at the magazine.

Many personal finance books seem to want readers to sit down and read through them, like a college textbook. ``Read all this,'' they seem to say. ``And you will know everything you need to put your finances in order and be on your way to wealth and happiness.''

Most people don't use these books that way, however. If they want to know about a subject, they'll turn to the index and find it, hoping those pages give them the information they need.

That pattern seems to be behind the design of Mr. Loeb's book. Here, the entries range from two paragraphs to just over two pages. The length of each entry often seems to depend on its relative importance to a large number of readers. Audit insurance, for instance, is one of the two-paragraph items. ``How to cut your taxes'' gets about three pages.

Other topics include calculating your net worth, what a financial planner can do for you, seeking safe utilities, the right time to buy a home, mutual fund selection, individual retirement accounts, how to survive an audit, and (presumably written by someone other than Mr. Loeb) cosmetics: Are they worthwhile?

Few of the more than 300 topics contain enough information to answer all the questions everyone would have on it; for that, you'll have to go one one of those specialized books or consult an expert, like a lawyer, tax accountant, broker, real estate agent, or banker. But there is enough information on every topic to give people a good basis to start from and occasionally go ahead with new financial steps.

For people who want a quick answer when they ask, ``What about . . . ?'' this guide will be a handy and often-used addition to their collection of money-management books.

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