- Maintain low debt balances. It will translate into a higher credit score. "Keeping low balances means you're a good manager of credit," says Barry Paperno, customer-service manager for MyFICO.com, a site that lets consumers obtain credit reports and FICO scores from all three big credit bureaus. Lenders frown on a person's having too many cards, but don't cancel all unused credit accounts. "If you close them but maintain the same amount of outstanding debt, your debt-to-credit-limit ratio goes up, and that's not good for your score," he says.
- Pay bills on time. Nothing is too small to screw up your credit―not a library fine, not a parking ticket. Pay everything on time, even if it's a bill for $5.
- Start simple. Beginner investors should start with index mutual funds, such as one pegged to the Standard & Poor's (S & P) 500 Index. "Index funds are a no-brainer diversification," says Dayana Yochim, personal-finance expert for the Motley Fool (fool.com), an investor-education website. Because the fund is automated (it mechanically follows the performance of the index), "investors aren't saddled with big fees to cover a high-level fund manager's salary." Check out the Vanguard 500 Index mutual fund (vanguard.com).
- Bank online. Companies can offer higher rates for online checking and savings accounts because they save on rent and other overhead. Among the sites to search: ingdirect.com, emigrantdirect.com, everbank.com, and citibank.com.
- Reshop your life insurance. "Prices have gone down over the past 10 years and continue to go down, so if you bought a policy several years ago, you might be able to get a better deal now even though you're older," says Kimberly Lankford, finance columnist and author of The Insurance Maze (Kaplan Business, $19, amazon.com). Try insure.com or accuquote.com, which is good for finding insurers who won't balk at preexisting medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers.