Ours is a nation of financial idiots, according to plenty of surveys. But hey, who isn't intimidated by the jargon of mortgage bankers, insurance salesmen and stockbrokers?
Educating yourself can be tough--and not because you're stupid. Today's markets are overflowing with new products. While there's a wealth of information online, much of it isn't neutral. Many of those "investor education" sites are provided by the financial-services industry itself. If, say, a Web site tells you bonds should be "the foundation of your retirement," it would be nice to know if the site is supported by bond-related firms.
Industry-backed sites aren't usually wrong--they just don't tell the whole story, says Stephen Brobeck of the Consumer Federation of America. They often leave out key points that could save you money, like the credit-education sites that don't tell consumers they should pay off their cards in full every month. A self-taught financial course is your best defense against bad advice. The basics:
Your government at work. Even the SEC has podcasts now. Look for the "Your Money" button under the investor section at sec.gov to download lessons about how to evaluate stock tips or read disclosures. Other agencies produce great consumer-friendly materials; they're all at mymoney.gov . State regulators have gotten into the act, too, with postings about how to save for retirement and avoid scams, as well as links to local authorities at the North American Securities Administrators Association site ( nasaa.org ).
Free and independent. Some of the most ubiquitous names on the Net offer the best information. Morningstar.com , which started as a mutual-fund research company, now has an entire curriculum on stocks, bonds, funds and more. It starts very generally, explaining what stocks are, and moves up to more- complex levels, describing how to evaluate whether a stock is well priced or not. Bankrate.com offers rate quotes and advice on borrowing and saving topics. If you want more-technical information, try the American Association of Individual Investors ( aaii.org ) or the Better Investing Community ( betterinvesting.org ), a firm that got its start launching investment clubs.
Industry self-help. Not all of the industry-fed sites are bad, but it helps to check out your sources. At most sites, you can usually click through "about us" to find out who's paying for the page. Financial-services companies that cater to do-it-yourself investors tend to offer the best information, says Brobeck. He points to low-cost mutual-fund companies like Fidelity ( fidelity.com ) and Vanguard ( vanguard.com ) and discount brokers like eTrade ( etrade.com ) and Charles Schwab ( schwab.com ). The Investor's Clearinghouse ( investoreducation.org ) is sponsored by a host of government agencies, industry players and research firms.
Cynics, cranks and curmudgeons. There are several online mavericks who are industry thorns. While their sites might not be comprehensive, they do present a consumerist view. Look at Scott Bilker on credit cards ( debtsmart.com ). Ed Mierzwinski on banking at uspirg.org and mutual-fund critic Roy Weitz at fundalarm.com . The more you read, the more you'll know. When you know enough to ask "dumb" questions with abandon, you'll know you're getting there.