Personal finance: Try these books for size

There's no shortage of authors willing to offer fool-proof plans for making money. But a good guide on basic investments or pension planning can be harder to find. Iain Morse scans the shelves to pick the best.

Some new year resolutions are harder to keep than others, but at least you can console yourself about not losing any weight with a drink and cigarette. If your list included sorting out your financial planning priorities there is still time for affirmative action.

One place to start is by educating yourself on the subject. Bookshop shelves groan with titles. If you are looking for an entry-level guide to financial planning, try Jonquil Lowe's Be Your Own Financial Adviser. One of a series published by the Consumers' Association, this deserves an award for its use of plain English and commonsense approach.

Suitable for all ages, it includes chapters on main areas of financial planning including mortgages, personal insurance, pension planning and lump-sum investment. The emphasis is on planning in a family context and some practical tools are included.

For instance, there are charts which allow you to calculate income, expenditure, and the cost of your financial planning targets. A glossary includes straightforward definitions of terms often more widely used than understood. A list of useful addresses will let you contact anyone from the Bank of England to the Funeral Planning Council.

Debbie Harrison's Personal Financial Planner, published by Pitman, covers some of the same ground, but without these practical tools. Instead, the emphasis is towards a more analytic, investment-orientated approach.

The costs of buying and selling both retail financial products and equities is given useful coverage. Guidance is given on how to monitor investment performance.

Anyone enjoying this book may be led on to more specialist titles dealing with investment. These days, most of us buy equities through collective investments like unit and investment trusts.

Bruce G Williams's Picking the Right Unit Trust boldly promises the "secret of successful investment", with personal equity plan (PEP) secrets. It also boasts of "the easy, yet sophisticated, way to invest". These are big claims, as might be expected from a former vice-president of Citibank.

Perhaps reading this book will help if you are applying for a job with Citibank, but its emphasis on using PEPs as a means of building a portfolio looks redundant with Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) on their way to replace them. Also, the secret of "the easy, sophisticated way to invest" turns out to be nothing more interesting than investing in tracker funds.

Joanna Slaughter's Guide to Investment Trusts & Unit Trusts is an even- handed introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of each type of investment, and for its category wins an award for plain English and the explication of inherently complex subject matter.

Tracker funds do not appear in its index, while PEPs get a single chapter. Elsewhere, Ms Slaughter gives a concise explanation of how to choose and manage an investment portfolio, with regard both to income and capital gains tax. A final chapter puts these collective investments into a variety of contexts, including school-fee provision and pension planning. A good-value, middle-level guide.

For a summary of the analytic techniques used in investment decisions, try Caroline Sefton's A-Z of Investment. You may not actually buy share options using "straddling and strangling" but if you ever meet a stranger on a train who talks about it, mutual misunderstanding can be avoided.

This book also contains a valuable, if brief, section on investment software, including the names and addresses of firms marketing programmes for use at home which have won approval from no less an authority than the Investors Chronicle.

For those interested in building up a share portfolio, Richard Koch's Selecting Shares that Perform offers to reveal "10 ways to beat the index". The great and wholly original feature of Mr Koch's opus its inclusion of the (1-2-3) Test, designed by "that great American sage of human behaviour, Hal Leavitt".

Completing this test will tell you what kind of investment you should hold, thinks Mr Koch. It kicks off by asking: "Do you believe in God?", going on to: "Which of the next three characters are you most like, or least unlike, (a) Hitler, ( b) the Daleks, (c) Attila the Hun?" Readers should think carefully about exactly who deserves this book.

Be Your Own Stockbroker is more conventional. Its author, Charles Vintcent, takes a classical stage-by-stage approach to explaining just where an individual stands in relation to broker and market.

This includes commonsense definitions of concepts like "price to earnings ratios, and how to apply them". Due space is given both to fundamental value as a criterion for buy/sell decisions, and also for the use of bar charts recording past performance to predict that of the future.

The Financial Times Guide to Using the Financial Pages, by Romesh Vaitilingham, is a complement to any such guide but, as its title suggests, also tells you where to find and how to use relevant information.

Unlike any of the other books surveyed, it also takes a broad-brush look at the relationship between macro-economic performances and investment returns, covering UK economic indicators in detail. A good buy for someone already interested in the subject.

Among books on pension provision, Barbara Ellis' Perfect Pensions is concise and serves as an entry-level guide. Its main drawback is lack of information on state pensions, covered at far greater length in Jonquil Lowe's The Which? Guide to Pensions. With a ready reckoner on how much income you will need in retirement, Ms Lowe's book goes into more detail, but is written mainly from an employee's perspective.

Tony Reardon's Allied Dunbar Pensions Handbook covers not just individual provision, but also the structure of both small and large company schemes. Written with an emphasis on Inland Revenue rules covering each type of provision, this will tell you all you need to know relevant to the type of provision you have. Used as a reference book by pension advisers, it is accessible to the general reader and highly recommended.

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