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NO. 1 FINANCIAL RESOLUTION: DIG OUT FROM UNDER DEBT

Biting the bullet on debt is the nation's top financial New Year's resolution, according to Money Magazine. Thirty-two percent of respondents in a recent poll said that paying off debts will be their top financial priority in 1998. It was the highest percentage this decade, up from 28 percent last year.

The No. 2 resolution was to increase savings and investments, 23 percent; followed by boosting income, 21 percent; reducing taxes, 12 percent, and buying things, 6 percent.

Men had more confidence in the economy than women, the survey found. Seventy-five percent of men gave the economy a "positive" rating, up 6 percentage points from late August. By contrast, only 37 percent of women think now is a good time to spend money.

Bye to '97; buy bonds for '98

The coming year should be a good one for bonds as the world stock markets lose steam, according to Robert Doll, director of equity investments for OppenheimerFunds Inc. in New York.

"For the first time in a decade, the Dow may fail to set a record high," Doll said. But low inflation and a rising savings rate should make bond investing a winner.

That means it's more important than ever for investors to rebalance their portfolios, which are heavy with stocks after three years of rising values.

Doll forecasts that a half-point reduction in the 30-year Treasury bond is possible this year, a development that would yield a low double-digit return for bond investors.

How much to pay a financial planner

Growing numbers of Americans are turning to professional financial planners to help plot investment strategy and make decisions on insurance, budgeting, estates and retirement. Which raises a crucial question: How much should you pay a planner?

A survey of 3,000 planners by the College for Financial Planning, recently found that the median hourly rate is $100. According to interviews with many planners, the typical middle-income customer can expect to pay between $1,500 and $3,000 to set up a comprehensive plan, which usually takes about three meetings. The plan should be thorough enough to cover your situation for several years. Occasional reviews by the planner should be much cheaper than the original plan.

According to the survey, 43 percent of planners earn their incomes through a combination of fees, such as an hourly charge, and commissions for handling purchases of stock, mutual funds and insurance policies. Of the rest, 24 percent receive only fees and 22 percent receive only commissions. About 11 percent are on salary. Make sure you know how your planner is getting paid.

Riding the upside of financial crisis

A silver lining to this winter's darkest cloud is that U.S. retailers can buy clothes more cheaply from Asian companies. Among the winners, says Personal Finance newsletter (703-394-4931), are trendy chains that sell to teen-agers: Pacific Sunwear (symbol: PSUN), Wet Seal (WTSLA), Gadzooks (GADZ) and Vans (VANS). Be warned, though, that none of these is cheap.

More conventional retailers to consider: Alabama-based Profitt's (PFT), which Merrill Lynch rates a buy, and Gap (GPS), which analyst Rick Snyder of Salomon Brothers tags "a solid long-term investment."

Home inspections take 2-2 1/2 hours

What should you expect from a home inspector? About 2 to 2 1/2 hours of time spent reviewing everything from the roof shingles to the foundation, including all appliances and electrical and plumbing systems.

"Anything less isn't enough time to do a thorough inspection," a spokesperson for the American Society of Home Inspectors said. Home inspections usually cost $200 to $300, depending on the size of the house.

The inspector's job is to spot costly structural problems before you close on a home. Buyers should expect a report that outlines the condition of the house and any necessary repairs, any safety concerns, and estimates on when appliances and systems will have to be replaced.

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