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Give Me Liberty or Give Me Debt

Founding father Thomas Jefferson didn't always cut to the chase when talking about money like we try to do here at The Motley Fool. But every so often he got it right, like in 1787 when he wrote: "The maxim of buying nothing without the money in our pockets to pay for it would make of our country one of the happiest on earth."

That's why, if I had one chance to go back in time, I'd probably hit ol' T.J. up on his deathbed and ask how he could have amassed so much debt and left his financial affairs in such a tangled mess. (OK, to be truthful, if I had only one chance to go back in time, I'd go see Jimi Hendrix play the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, but I'm trying to sound relevant for a financial website here.)

Little did Jefferson know the legacy he would leave us: freedom, independence, and wallets filled with credit cards that carry 18+% interest rates. Perhaps everybody hasn't re-mortgaged the house three times to pay off their credit cards and then run them up again like my parents have, but we're still achingly far from financial freedom. Total consumer debt in this country has risen from 11% of total income in 1952 to nearly 19% at the end of 2000, and personal bankruptcies roughly doubled over the last decade.

According to a recent AARP report, 40% of us will experience poverty at some point between the ages of 60 and 90. And 93% of Americans eligible for tax-saving IRAs don't use them; only 4% of those eligible make the maximum $2000 contribution.

Add to that the fact that those of us who do regularly invest are too often putting our money in managed mutual funds -- three-quarters of which underperform the stock market's average return, according to Lipper Analytical Services -- and you can see that it may very well be time for a financial revolution.

Whether you're 15 or 50, there are some steps you can take right now that will help ensure you don't end up with your financial affairs in disarray like our noble third president. Here are five principles that can serve as a solid foundation for your financial future.

1. Don't blow your tax refund
You've probably got a piece of the federal government's $1.35 trillion tax cut coming to your mailbox this summer or early fall. Singles can expect $300, married folks $600. Don't spend it on lottery tickets or the latest Survivor apparel. Pay off some high-interest debt, put it in your short-term savings, or invest it for the long haul.

2. Dial away your debt
If you're carrying a credit card balance with an interest rate of more than 15%, call up the company and tell them you've really enjoyed paying them a small fortune, but if they can't lower your rate to somewhere closer to 10-12% you're going to have to part ways. Mostly likely they'll lower your rate -- it's cheaper for them to keep you as a customer. If not, get a card with a better rate (from that pile of offers collecting in your mailbox).

3. Refinance your home
With interest rates creeping downward, homeowners can save big. For instance, reducing an interest rate on a million-dollar mortgage by just 1.5% will save Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt a ton. But the strategy can also help reduce monthly expenses even on more modest homes.

4. Don't lose to the market
Make a commitment to at least match the market's return by investing in an index mutual fund. Invest that $600 tax refund at the stock market's historical average return of 11%, and over 50 years it will grow to more than $110,000.

5. Invest regularly
Make investing a habit. There's nothing like dollar cost averaging into a 401(k) or an IRA to take advantage of market volatility -- you buy more shares when stock prices are low, less when they are high. Plus, in a 401(k) your employer takes the money directly out of your paycheck so you won't even miss it. Many employers will even match part of your contribution.

Those are just a few simple steps you can take to put more money away for your future -- or for concert tickets this summer. Heck, my generation may have missed out on Jimi's live performances, but there's still some old rock n' rollers out there who get the job done. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Bob Bobala is still nursing a headache from his seven-hour OzzFest extravaganza last weekend. He insists that the over-priced Black Sabbath trinkets he bought were paid for with cash. To see what else Bob's doing with his money, check out his profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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