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USE-IT-OR-LOSE-IT ACCOUNTS NEED TO BE CHECKED NOW

If you have a flexible health care spending account, this is the time to shop for more than toys.

A flex account lets you set money aside, free of taxes, for medical costs through the year. That's the upside. The downside is, if you don't use it, you lose it. The average enrollee in a flex spending account forfeits $136 at year's end, according to a survey by Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill.

"With Dec. 31 just around the corner, employees enrolled in spending programs should verify whether they have money left in their accounts and cover as many related expenses as possible," says Ken Sperling, a benefits consultant at the accounting firm.

How to recoup? Some of the eligible expenses are a visit to a chiropractor, a new set of glasses or contact lenses, or a trip to the dentist that's not covered by a dental plan. The money also can pay the deductible under a medical, dental, vision or hearing plan -- or it can go toward a spouse's deductible.

The flex account is a good deal for employees, despite the risk of losing some cash, Hewitt said. The average employee in a program contributed $744 to a health care account in 1997, saving an estimated $245 in taxes. So even people who forfeit some funds at year end can still come out ahead, considering their reduced tax bite. Currently, 17.5 percent of U.S. employees are enrolled in a flexible health care account.

Get stock at below-market prices

Here's a sure way to beat the market -- invest in a dividend reinvestment plan that lets you buy stock at a discount to market prices.

The DRIP Investor, a newsletter that tracks dividend reinvestment plans, is offering its annual list of 50 discount stock plans free to the public. To request the list, send a note to the Drip Investor, 7412 Calumet Ave., Hammond, Ind., 46324, or call (800) 233-5922.

A dividend reinvestment plan allows investors to buy stock, often directly from a company, and roll dividends into purchases of more shares. The programs usually provide a break from brokerage commissions, although there may be buying fees or a one-time account enrollment charge, and you do have to pay a commission when it comes time to sell.

Are your gifts insured?

Once the hot new computer is plugged in, the mink is hanging in the closet and the diamond earrings are tucked into the jewelry box, you might stop and think -- hey, will my insurance cover all this new stuff?

This is a good time of year to perform a check-up on your insurance policy, says the Professional Insurance Agents of New York State Inc.

"Personal computers, fine art, cameras and jewelry often are thought to be fully covered, but there may be limitations on the amount of insurance and on the types of loss or damage that are covered," said Shelly Kozel, president of the agents' group.

An endorsement can bring a policy up to date, raising coverage for property that's lost, stolen or damaged, he said.

Mutual fund investors need help

Contrary to popular belief, the gutsy, "do-it-yourself" mutual fund investor is in the minority.

Only about one-third of the estimated 65 million people who invest in mutual funds do it without the aid of a professional such as a broker, money manager or financial planner, according to Strategic Insight, a New York-based mutual fund research firm.

That is still a hefty chunk of people, but it is small considering the growth of the mutual fund industry and its ubiquitous message: Any "Average Joe" can manage his portfolio through mutual funds.

The number of do-it-yourself mutual fund investors has remained relatively constant over the last 15 years despite the bull market and the billions of dollars that have poured into the funds, said Avi Nachmany, an analyst with Strategic Insight.

One reason: Selecting a mutual fund has become more confusing than ever -- there are 9,143 of them.

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