'The love of money may be the root of all evil," sighed Bernice, "but the only sure things are death and taxes. Money isn't going anywhere. Except maybe my money." She had just paid a penalty on a late tax payment and was feeling the pinch of unbudgeted expense. "I'm just tired of feeling like such a financial dunce." That sounded like my cue. "What if I can find someone to help you start investing? You're a smart gal. Grab the bull market by the horns!" Bernice, good sport, said she'd take a look at whatever I could dig up. "I'm always willing to make money," she said with a smile.

A couple of days later, I found Better Investing (760-741-4137 in North County; 619-589-2545 in South County; www.betterinvesting.org ), a nationwide nonprofit organization of volunteers set up to provide education, networking, and practical investing experience. "We want to help people become better investors," said Earl Davis Jr., president of the San Diego chapter. "Our four basic principles are: invest regularly, reinvest all your earnings and dividends, look for companies that have potential growth, and diversify -- that keeps you from being the victim of an industry that might go belly up."

Some people get together and join Better Investing as a club ( $40 /year dues plus $25 for each individual member); others join as individual investors ( $50 to $80 ). "The biggest benefit of being a member is getting access to online information about companies. You also get a manual and a stock-selection guide. The guide is the most popular tool we offer; it includes graphs on which you can plot the growth of a company based on its annual reports. If its rate of growth is such that it doesn't look like the price of the stock is going to double in the next ten years, you can almost forget it right away. In the old days, we plotted it manually, and you can still do it that way. But we also have a computer program called Investor's Tool Kit, which does all the plotting for you, and also some of the math, to let you know how a company is growing." He noted that the kit allows you to adjust the graph based on various factors not covered in the basic profile.

From Davis's description, it sounded like a club might be a good first step for a beginner -- or a whole bunch of beginners. "Most people form clubs because of some common bond. There are two clubs at the church I attend. It's known as a partnership, for income-tax purposes. Most clubs meet once a month, rotating between different people's houses. Everybody puts in so much money a month. When I first started, it was in a club, and we were putting in $10 , but that was way back in the '60s. For the first six months after it starts, a club should be looking at information and putting its money away," before beginning to buy.

After you've been meeting and studying and learning to use the stock-selection guide for a while, "you know more about the stock market than the average person. You've been exposed to some principles. The guide gives you an idea of whether a stock is a good one to buy. It also tells you when to buy it. Anybody can tell you that IBM is a good stock to buy, because of their reputation. But should you buy it now or not? Over the next five years, is the company going to grow or be stagnant? From annual reports you can make projections, relying on what a company has done in the past five years. You can get a rough idea of where it is right now and whether or not you should wait until it drops before going in."

Once the club is up and running, different people make presentations about different stocks. "Depending on the size of the club, there may be three or four. Based on the information presented, the members decide whether or not they want to buy that particular stock. They also make decisions about whether or not to sell stocks that the club already owns. The stock is owned together."

Club or no club, computer program or no computer program, Davis said that some people still find the selection guide "intimidating. They look at that graph and freeze. That's why we offer ongoing workshops." Every year, Better Investing holds an Education Fest, open to members and nonmembers. Popular courses include, "When to Sell... How to Read an Annual Report... How to Use the Value Line -- that's a sheet that tells you everything about a company, such as how much is held by inside investors, for instance." Other workshops include Investing Terminology, Introduction to Portfolio Management, and Club Organization. Each is an hour long. Davis said that they would serve well as introductions for beginners, or as review/updates for veterans.

Davis encouraged getting started sooner than later. "The best time to get to anybody for something like this is when they're young. Those of us who have passed the age of 50 wish that somebody would have told us."

I think I'll be able to coax Bernice to the Education Fest. But if she wants to get started before next fall, more (and more in-depth) classes will be held in October at the Manchester Center in San Diego ( $35, register online or call). Morning classes include Using the Stock Selection Guide, Using Investor's Tool Kit 5, and Introduction to Better Investing. Afternoon classes include Portfolio Management, Using Investor's Tool Kit 5, and When to Sell.

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