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Most people on Wall Street figured the new Roth individual retirement account would be hot -- but not this hot.

Major mutual fund companies say they're opening huge numbers of Roth accounts so far this year. Most of the investments are going into stock funds, providing another reason why the U.S. market continues to soar.

Fidelity Investments said it opened 117 percent more IRA accounts, including traditional IRAs and Roths, in the first two months of the year compared with the same period in 1997. Two-thirds of the new accounts were Roths, and 58 percent of the Roths represented new investments. The Vanguard Group, Invesco Funds and Charles Schwab also report high demand for Roths.

With a Roth IRA, eligible investors can contribute up to $2,000 a year subject to income limits. The contributions aren't tax deductible, but the investment earnings that the account generates are tax-free at withdrawal.

Landscaping adds to home value
Do you have an unsightly spot in your yard that you'd like to make more aesthetically pleasing?

Many homeowners do -- whether it's a bare spot under a tree, a tree stump in an otherwise pristine lawn, a compost pile you can see from thedeck, a utility meter that sticks out like a sore thumb or the well-worn path Fido made in the grass.

Such eyesores lessen the effect of your landscaping efforts and can decrease your property's value when you want to sell.

According to the Professional Lawn Care Association of America in Marietta, Ga., studies show that a well-maintained yard can add value. (Check the group's World Wide Web site, Homeowners can realize a 15 percent increase in home value or selling price when the property is attractively landscaped, the group says.

New source of mutual fund data
Merrill Lynch & Co. said it plans to start offering research on about 300 mutual funds by the end of the year.

Merrill analyst Ronald Santangelo will lead the new research effort. He won't make recommendations on what funds investors should buy. Instead, he will provide general research information, the company said.

Merrill, the biggest U.S. securities firm based on the number of brokers, will be competing in this market against established mutual fund research firms such as Morningstar Inc. and Lipper Analytical Services Inc.

Free finance booklet aimed at women
Men are no longer the legal masters of financial affairs -- but some social habits die hard.

"Living in recent times hasn't guaranteed a woman's control over her own finances," said AnnDiamond, spokesperson for Citibank Cards' consumer financial education program.

To help women get a handle on their financial affairs, Citibank is offering a free booklet, "Money Matters for Women," available by calling (800) 669-2635.

The recommended steps include reviewing the current financial picture of assets, savings and investments; locating important documents such as the deed to your house, and establishing an individual credit record by keeping a checking account and credit card in your own name.

When credit is your due
Despite all the credit repair scams out there, there really is a way for people with poor credit history to get back into the good graces of lenders.

Consumer Action has released a survey of 21 secured credit cards that carry no application fees. Secured cards require the cardholder to leave deposits in an account that backstops their card spending. If the bill goes unpaid, the money comes out of the account.

The cards surveyed by Consumer Action carried interest rates of 9.72 percent to 20.05 percent, and annual fees of $18 to $45.

For a copy of the survey, mail a stamped (32-cent), self-addressed envelope to Secured Credit Cards, Consumer Action, 717 Market St. Suite 310, San Francisco, Calif., 94103.

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