Thirty-Five Minutes to Riches

Find out your credit score

Time it takes: 7 minutes

Know how lenders see you. Take seven minutes to download a

Raise your credit score

Time it takes: 8 minutes

It takes time to recover from major credit lapses, but you can do two things fast that will improve your credit score. Both will lower the size of your outstanding debt as a percentage of your total borrowing power.

1. Pay down a balance. 2. Call your issuer and ask for a higher credit limit. And don't spend it.

Triple the return on savings

Time it takes: 10 minutes

Do you have cash going nowhere in a checking or savings account? Bank money-market accounts typically pay less than 1%. You can open a savings account with HSBC Direct that recently paid 5.05%. No minimum balance is required.

With your driver's license and Social Security number handy, visit and click on Sign Me Up. You'll be walked through screens to enter personal information. Want to fund your account immediately? Have a check with your bank account number and routing code handy to authorize an electronic transfer.

Stop junk mail

Time it takes: 5 minutes

Call 888-5OPTOUT to remove your name from credit issuers' mailing lists. The result of that five-minute talk with a computer? Fewer temptations and a mailbox filled with letters, not offers for pre-approved cards.

Most important, you'll cut the risk of an identity thief raiding your mailbox or garbage can and applying for credit in your name. Stolen paper mail accounts for 9% of identity fraud cases, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.

Note: Because we're talking credit bureaus, you'll have to provide your Social Security number. It's okay.

Freeze your credit

Time it takes: 25 minutes

Doing this prevents anyone from issuing credit in your name. (You, of course, can temporarily lift the freeze when you need a loan.) Nearly 30 states allow freezes even if you haven't been an ID theft victim. In some states you'll pay about $30 to place or remove-temporarily or permanently- the freeze. Go to for instructions.

Haggle down your credit rate

Time it takes: 8 minutes

Dial your issuer and ask for a lower rate. If your credit score tops 720, do not be satisfied until your rate is less than 10%, says Curtis Arnold of Your biggest weapon: Make it clear that you'll stop using the card if the issuer refuses. Our reporter, helped by the fact that she's been a good customer for seven years, got the rate on her Discover card cut by four percentage points.

Upgrade to a better card

Time it takes: 30 minutes

Rewards, rates and fees change often. So search to make sure you have the best deal. Among the lowest-rate cards on the site recently: Simmons First National Bank in Arkansas (800-636-5151) offers a fixed rate as low as 7.25% with no annual fee to consumers who have excellent credit.

Add to your 401(k)

Time it takes: 3 minutes

You signed up for your plan right after you found the office vending machines. Now do more: Raise your contribution by a point. Save 10% of a $50,000 salary in your 401(k) and you'll have $1.4 million in 35 years, assuming 8% returns and 4% annual raises. Ramp that up to 11% and you'll earn around $140,000 more.

Call your plan or visit your 401(k)'s website. At 401(k)s administered by Fidelity, for example, raising your contribution takes all of three minutes.

Manage like a pro

Time it takes: 4 minutes

If you have a diversified portfolio, a run-up in one asset class can throw your mix out of line, increasing risk and eroding returns. An unrebalanced $10,000 portfolio of 80% stocks and 20% bonds would have grown to $21,620 over the past 10 years.

If you'd rebalanced annually, you'd have $22,213, or $593 more - and taken less risk to get there. Retooling a 401(k) is easy: With a big plan administrator like Fidelity or Hewitt, rebalancing online takes minutes. In a taxable account, simply direct new money into the lagging fund categories.

Buy a forever portfolio

Time it takes: 25 minutes

Putting together a complete fund portfolio was once a time consuming chore. Nowadays target-date funds, which adjust the stock and bond allocation to smooth returns as you near a "target" retirement year, do it for you in minutes. Many 401(k)s offer them.

For direct investments, use the low-cost options from Vanguard (800-851-4999) or T. Rowe Price (800-638-5660). At, click on the tab labeled Research Funds and Stocks. Find the fund that corresponds to your planned retirement year, then download and look over the prospectus. Next click on the Buy This Fund link and follow the instructions. Have your checkbook ready to deposit funds electronically.

free credit report at (For year-round monitoring, get a report from one of the three major credit bureaus every four months.) If you spot an error, notify the bureau (online, by phone or by mail) and the creditor (call and also send a letter). You won't find your credit score here, so when you request a report from Equifax, pay $7.95 for your FICO score, the most commonly used score. The range is 300 to 850 - 700 and above is good.

Find promising funds

Time it takes: 5 minutes

You can cut through the 8,000 or so mutual funds out there by sticking to the MONEY 70. Or run a screen for similar funds at (click on the Funds tab and go to the Mutual Fund Screener link). Pick a category, and then limit expenses to less than the category average. Next screen for funds whose managers have five years of tenure or more - greater experience is linked to better performance. Cut funds that failed to beat their five- or 10-year category averages.

Track your returns

Time it takes: 35 minutes

It's a pain to figure out how your investments are doing, especially if your money is scattered among several accounts. Spend 35 minutes setting up the portfolio tracker at (you must first register at the site) so that you can start calculating your own rate of return. For a Web tool that can be clunky, Morningstar's tracker is particularly well designed and easy to use. You will, however, have to update it when you reinvest dividends or buy more shares.

Find out if you're paid enough

Time it takes: 15 minutes

Before you can make your case for a raise, you need something to measure yourself against. offers Salary Wizard for free. Plug in your title and zip code and you'll get the median pay in your area for comparable positions. Or spend 10 minutes filling out a questionnaire with more variables, such as the size of your employer, and get 12 pages of data by buying a Personal Salary Report for $29.95 to $79.95 (the price varies by title).

Run a retirement plan

Time it takes: 5 minutes

On the road to riches, the key question is whether you're on track for financial independence. So pull out your retirement and investment account statements, plus projections for any pensions. Running that simple math can be surprisingly valuable: Researchers have found that people who plan for retirement have a higher net worth than those who do nothing.

Estimate your life insurance

Time it takes: 35 minutes

How much coverage is enough? For a fast ballpark estimate, multiply your annual income by five. With 35 minutes you can use the detailed calculator from the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (life You'll be asked for your assets and debts, plus answers to tough questions like how long your family would need income after your death. If you find you need more coverage, get a quote on a term policy in five minutes at

Learn your tax bracket

Time it takes: 20 minutes

Knowing what rate you pay on the last dollar you earn can help you to, among other things, pick a taxable vs. a municipal bond fund. Pull out your most recent 1040 and look for taxable income (line 43 in 2006). Adjust for any big changes in your income or the deductions you expect to take this year, then find where you fit in at (search for "2007 federal tax rate schedule").

To choose between a muni and a taxable fund, divide the muni's yield by 100% minus your tax rate. If that number is higher than the taxable yield, go tax-free.

Escape late fees

Time it takes: 6 minutes

Why mess with checks and trips to the post office? Why risk a late payment when, according to Consumer Action, 85% of credit-card issuers impose penalty rates that average 24.5% if you're late on one or two bills? Pay bills online at your bank. First register at the site. Then gather your bills. Many bank sites have a pull-down menu of merchants; select yours and enter your account number. Or plug in the name, address and account number manually.

Write bounce-proof checks

Time it takes: 9 minutes

The median fee for bouncing a check recently hit $27.50, according to Call your bank or visit its website to sign up for overdraft protection. With that service, the bank will cover your check with money from a linked savings account. It may cost you $10, but that's less than half the charge for insufficient funds - not to mention what the payee demands.

Get bank alerts

Time it takes: 4 minutes.

Avoid bounced checks and spot ID theft early by having your bank notify you when your balance falls below a certain level or when there's unusual activity in your account. Citibank, for example, offers alerts via e-mail or text message. To activate them, log into your online account and select Account Info and then E-mail and Wireless Alerts. You can add up to two e-mail addresses and a mobile-phone number for alerts. Use the menu of options to designate what updates you want.

Pay less in auto insurance

Time it takes: 7 minutes

Simply raising your deductible can save you up to 30%. With an old car, drop your collision and comprehensive coverage when the car is worth less than 10 times what you pay for the insurance. Or shop for a lower premium at, an easy-to-navigate comparison site. You'll be guided through five screens of information such as driving history, car make and model. A few minutes later the site will give you the lowest quote from its database (which doesn't include all the biggest insurers). Agents will also e-mail or call you with quotes from other insurers.

Double-check your taxes

Time it takes: 35 minutes

Next April remember this: Before you seal the envelope or tap the key that whisks your return to the IRS, spend 35 minutes looking for easy-to-spot errors. Overlook a dependent (the one at college may count) and you could owe an extra $1,000 in taxes. Transpose your Social Security number and your refund may never arrive. Did you sign your return?

Keep more of your paycheck

Time it takes: 30 minutes

A generous tax refund means you are overpaying the government. To have fewer dollars plucked from your paycheck, claim more exemptions on your W-4 form (to see if you can, use the withholding calculator at Print out a W-4 at the IRS site or from your company's intranet. With last year's tax return, a pay stub and a calculator handy, filling out the worksheet on page 2 takes about half an hour.

Get a tax break for day care

Time it takes: 35 minutes

Make this the fall that you finally sign up for a flexible spending account for healthcare and dependent-care expenses. Your boss takes pretax dollars from your paycheck; you tap the account for contact lenses, day care and the like.

Pay less for your cell

Time it takes: 1 minute

Know what your employer hates? Raises. What he likes? Perks that cost him nothing. At some firms, employees qualify for cell-phone discounts of up to 20%. To see if you get a Verizon discount, go to and plug in your e-mail address; for AT&T, go to

Cut drug costs

Time it takes: 16 minutes

Many employers use a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) such as Medco or Caremark to administer prescription drug coverage. Call your PBM or go to its website (have your prescription drug coverage card handy) to check mailorder prices and sign up.

No more waiting rooms

Time it takes: 15 minutes

Can't get in and out of the doctor's office in 35 minutes? You can see a physician's assistant or a nurse practitioner in about 15 minutes, or so, says MinuteClinic, one of the largest of the chains of walk-in medical centers cropping up in pharmacies or stores such as Target or Wal-Mart. That's fine for basic ailments like earaches, strep throat and pinkeye. Your insurance may not be accepted, which could leave you footing the entire $59 ear-infection fee. But you can stop by at lunch and not miss hours, or even a day, of work.

Burn more calories

Time it takes: 30 minutes

Nibbling an extra 100 calories a day will pack on 10 pounds in a year. Doing moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day will prevent that gain - and save you money. Obese Americans spend 26% more out of pocket on health care than normal-weight workers, according to a study in Health Affairs. They also take nearly twice as many prescriptions and earn $1.42 less per hour.

Be like Buffett

Time it takes: 35 minutes

It takes seven seconds on a high-speed Internet connection to download Berkshire Hathaway's annual report (available at Reading Buffett's letter to shareholders might take a full 35 minutes. The wisdom therein could put your investing head on straight for 35 years.

Save for college

Time it takes: 35 minutes

A state 529 college savings plan is the best way to invest for your kid's higher education. With one check, you can buy a diversified portfolio that becomes more conservative as your child nears school. See Money Magazine's guide to 529s in every state (link below).

Stick with your local 529 if it's a Money pick. But if your homegrown options are fee-laden and offer no local tax breaks, go with the Utah Educational Savings Plan (800-418-2551; Click on the Forms tab and download the program description and "form 100." Figure on 15 minutes to read, 19 minutes to fill out the agreement, one minute to fax.

Automate your savings

Time it takes: 10 minutes

If a $10,000 minimum investment is keeping you out of mutual funds, you have a quick work-around. Lots of funds let you in for much less if you agree to have your investment automatically taken out of your bank account. With T. Rowe Price's automatic asset builder (, you can invest in T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth (TRBCX), T. Rowe Price New Era (PRNEX) and many other exemplary funds with just $50 a month.

Get credit, even in a crunch

Time it takes: 15 minutes

Apply for a home equity line of credit. Don't tap it now unless you must (average rates are 8.75%). But in an emergency - say, when you've lost your job - you may find it tougher to qualify. Start by calling your bank, but go to to compare its offer with those from other nearby lenders.

Read your mortgage

Time it takes: 30 minutes

Only now are many borrowers with risky loans finding that they misunderstood the terms. First pull out the one-page Truth in Lending Disclosure your lender gave you: The APR on it is the best estimate of what you are paying. Lower rates mentioned in other loan documents are likely come-on offers. If your rate is variable, scan the adjustable-rate disclosures section of your mortgage for the date it changes and the highest it can go. Examine every page for the words "prepayment penalty."

Stop overpaying on your mortgage

Time it takes: 9 minutes

If you carry private mortgage insurance but now have 20% equity in your home, see whether you can cancel. Your mortgage servicer (the phone number is listed on your bill) usually must oblige if your down payment and principal payments exceed 20% of your home's original value. Many will do so if rising prices have pushed your equity to 20%.

In this case, canceling will take longer: Most mortgage companies require an appraisal, which costs around $300. But at, or you can get an idea of whether your home value has risen enough to justify a call.

Create an insurance record

Time it takes: 29 minutes for a 2,200 sq ft home

Walk around your house with a camera. Shoot closeups of your jewelry, artwork and other valuables. If disaster strikes, this proof of what you owned will speed your claim and help you get a better settlement. Keep copies of the video or photos in your safedeposit box or elsewhere outside your home.

Curb impulse buys

Time it takes: 10 minutes

By one estimate, two-thirds of all purchases are unplanned. To keep impulse shopping in check, ask the clerk to hold your wished for item, then take a 10-minute stroll. Next ask yourself whether you truly need this sweater/video game/golf club and how you'll pay for it.

Spend consciously

Time it takes: 35 minutes

At the grocery store, you're up against tempting displays and smells in every aisle. To avoid being ambushed, you need to follow a strict plan. Take 35 minutes to make a shopping list that follows the layout of the store (no straying) and calls for stocking up on sales items. To see the specials at stores nearby, enter your zip code

Slash recurring charges

Time it takes: 10 minutes

It seemed like a good idea - for just $16.99 a month, you could rent three DVDs at a time as often as you wanted. But how often is that really? Scan your credit-card statement for those automatic monthly charges you normally just pay. Ask yourself whether you're getting your money's worth. How often do you go to the $75-a month gym? How about that cheese-of-the-month club? Cancel what you're not using.

Boost your mileage

Time it takes: 7 minutes

About half of car owners don't test the air pressure on their car tires often enough, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association. The recommendation: Do it once a month or before any long trip. The payoff: Properly inflated tires improve your fuel economy by 3.3%. You can buy a pencil tire gauge for less than $10. Check the pressure when your tires are cold. If they need air, head to a gas station within a mile of home.

Find it cheaper online

Time it takes: 30 minutes

Before you buy anything on the Web (or at a mall), spend a few minutes at a comparison shopping site. and both scour the Net for bargains at a large number of online stores, but their results can vary. Looking to buy a Garmin GPS for your car? found one from a top retailer for $357.95; Shopzilla's find was $212.54.

Demand a lower cable bill

Time it takes: 15 minutes

Okay, it's not as simple as that - but almost. Call and complain that your bill is too high; repeat your message calmly ("This just isn't worth it to me anymore"). Make sure to casually use the words "satellite dish" (as in "I wonder how that compares with a satellite dish") or maybe "phone company." This strategy translated into a $20 monthly discount (for a year) in our test.

Save on drinking water

Time it takes: 4 minutes

At $1.50 a pop for a gallon of bottled water at the supermarket, the desire for healthy hydration adds up. By purchasing a water filter, you can cut your family's water costs to 19¢ a gallon. Order a Brita Riviera pitcher at for $27. Replacement filters good for two months are $9 each.

Six 35-second solutions:

Time it takes: 35 seconds

1. Say no to a new store credit card.

With rates typically above 20%, interest can wipe out that initial 10% discount. The new credit application will hurt your credit score, and you'll have yet another temptation to spend.

2. Check yes to reinvesting your dividends.

If you'd put $10,000 in an S&P 500 index fund in 1997 and reinvested dividends all along, you'd have $22,446 at the end of 2006. If you didn't, you'd end with just $19,147.

3. Say no to an extended warranty.

It'll cost you $30 to $200, and with electronics so reliable nowadays, you're unlikely to need it. Besides, if your computer breaks in two years, you'll want the new model, not a replacement.

4. Fill your tank with regular.

Premium gas is about 8% more expensive, and no matter what the manufacturer says, cars don't need pricier gas to run smoothly and resist wear.

5. Swipe your debit rather than credit card.

If your purchase will further fatten your balance on a high-rate credit card, you're better off paying with the money that's in your bank account. If asked, say "credit" rather than "debit" and your debit card will be processed over the credit-card network. You'll have more liability protection and less chance of paying a fee.

6. Delete any e-mail asking for account information or your social security number.

It may be a scam. No reputable financial services firm will ask.


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