You think you should get a personal equity plan but you're worried that the stock market could be heading for a fall. And you know you only have three weeks left to use this year's PEP allowance.

What do you do? Pray for a stock market crash so that you don't have to buy in at such a dangerously high level? We may well not get a good buying opportunity this side of the new tax year. Or, scrap the idea of buying a PEP for the moment? After all, this shouldn't be your last chance to get one. Labour says it has no plans to get rid of PEPs.

But what if you are still keen to use your allowance this tax year? You could take a look at one of the lower-risk PEPs offering guaranteed investment returns or some other type of protection against stock market swings. But be aware that you pay for this security in the form of lower investment potential, and that often your money will be tied up to a greater degree than with normal PEPs.

What about buying a PEP that invests overseas? Here you may benefit from a strong pound, but, internationally, stock markets have soared in recent times and could prove as vulnerable as the stock market in the UK.

A better solution, and one which allows investment in the UK or overseas, could be a PEP that takes your money now but keeps you in cash for a time. With most PEPs, handing over your money means an immediate investment; the managers take the view that you have chosen to be in the stock market and it is not their job to decide when to switch between cash and shares.

But a few PEP managers will phase the investment of your money over a set period, so ensuring that all is not invested directly before a stock market fall. There are also PEPs that give you complete freedom over when to invest, and what to invest in. These PEPs, called self-select, are generally run by stockbrokers, but are really only suited to experienced investors.

All the money you want in your PEP has to be put in during this tax year, but you will normally earn tax-free interest on the cash before it is invested.

Fidelity Investments, a big US investment manager and a major PEP company in the UK, offers a phased option for investing in a choice of 20 PEP- type investment funds. Your money is split into six portions and invested monthly, with the first portion going in the day the company gets your cheque. The minimum total investment is pounds 1,000. Money awaiting investment earns tax-free interest at a current rate of 4.2 per cent.

If you want a straightforward investment in the UK stock market, Fidelity's cut-price Moneybuilder Index PEP could be a good choice. This is the company's cheaper equivalent of the stock market-tracking PEP sold by Richard Branson's Virgin Direct. The added security of phased investment gives it a further edge. Fidelity also has a strong reputation for investing in Europe, and has European funds available through phased investment.

Another phased investment scheme is run by Henderson Investors. This company allows you to have your money drip-fed into its investment funds over three, six or 12 months. The current rate of tax-free interest you earn meantime is 5.5 per cent. Again, the minimum total investment is pounds 1,000.

Henderson does not have the low-cost options offered by Fidelity. But many of these and other PEPs can be bought through discount companies, such as Chelsea Financial Services in London.

Discounts can be 3 per cent or more, although Fidelity's Moneybuilder Index PEP is not available on a discounted basis.

If, instead, you feel confident enough to choose all your own investments (rather than from an investment company's range of funds) as well as when to buy them, stockbrokers that offer self-select PEPs include ShareLink (0121-233 9955), Killik & Co (0171-384 4400), and Pilling & Co (0161-832 6581). Phased investment and cash within a self-select PEP are both playsafe options that many PEP investors may find worth considering, but do not regard them as one-way bets. If the stock market falls you stand to benefit from the lower prices you will be able to buy at, but if it keeps on rising you stand to be worse off. Taking the plunge might well have been the better option after all.

Contacts: Fidelity 0800 414110; Henderson Investors 0171 638 5757; Chelsea Financial Services 0171 351 6022. The Independent on Sunday has a free Guide to PEPs, written by Steve Lodge, the Personal Finance Editor and sponsored by GA Life, a PEP company. For a copy call 0500 125888 quoting reference 259/1, or complete the coupon.