How to Shop For…

Cell Phone Service
Choose a lousy plan because you're blinded by an offer for a sleek new phone, and you'll find yourself in a financial sinkhole. Instead go to online comparison sites such as or to shop for the deal that best fits your phone habits. Be strategic. Exceeding your monthly minute plan by just one hour can add an extra $21 a month to your bill. That's $252 a year. Estimate how many minutes you need, then add at least 10 percent.

If you make only local calls, don't bother with a national plan. That could save more than 25 percent off your monthly bill. Ask friends how they like their carriers; some companies have awful coverage in certain neighborhoods. Avoid roaming charges—fees applied to calls when you travel outside your home market. If you make regular trips to a few cities, check to see whether the plan will provide coverage for those areas; T-Mobile, Cingular and AT&T offer national plans that include all calls in the United States.

And read the fine print: Is that phone free because you're agreeing to stay in the plan for at least two years or pay a $150 to $200 early-termination fee? Suddenly, that free phone doesn't seem so free, does it? —Suze Orman

A Mortgage
Start by pushing your credit rating as high as possible by paying off your card balances and making payments on time. Lenders use your credit score to set the interest rate on your mortgage; a good score will save you thousands of dollars. If you're buying your first home and think you'll probably move again soon, check out hybrid mortgages: The interest rate is often fixed for the first five years (before it becomes adjustable) and is typically one percentage point lower than on a 30-year guaranteed-rate mortgage. If you're buying a house you plan to stay in forever and can handle the higher monthly payments, a 15-year—instead of a 30-year—fixed mortgage is your smartest move. The shorter term saves you a bucketload of interest costs.

Make lenders clearly spell out every closing cost, and don't be seduced by the annual percentage rate (APR), which is the interest rate plus all the other closing expenses. This rate assumes you'll stay in the home for the entire length of the mortgage; because many of us won't stick around that long, the APR is fairly useless. Instead shop for the lowest basic interest rate and then compare the actual dollar amounts of all additional fees. Check out mortgages at your bank; banks tend to offer their customers good deals. Also take a look at online offerings at and —Suze Orman

A Bank
There's no reason to pay for a checking account. Find out the minimum balance for free checking and whether that figure is calculated as a daily or monthly average. If you'll be slapped with a charge (when you go below the minimum balance), take your business elsewhere. Those of you who tend to hit the ATM a few times a week should look for the bank with the most machines in your stomping grounds. If savings, not checking, is your biggest concern, shop for the highest interest rates. Be sure to check out the penalty for early withdrawals and other hidden service fees such as monthly maintenance charges.

Credit unions can be terrific "banks," and generally it's not difficult to join one. A credit union is a nonprofit, cooperative financial institution, owned and controlled by the people who use its services. Find out more at Before you open an account at a credit union, go over all the incidental charges—for instance, will it cost you to talk to a live teller?

Consider banking electronically. Many online banks will give you more services and higher interest simply because they have less overhead. Make sure the bank advertises its Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) membership. This government agency insures your deposits—up to $100,000 per account. —Suze Orman

A Credit Card
Just because you qualify for a bunch of credit cards doesn't mean you should jump at the offers. Applying for lots of cards at the same time can have a negative effect on your credit rating because it makes lenders worry that you won't be able to handle all your expenses. You don't want to damage your credit score: It determines which loans you qualify for and what interest rates you'll be offered.

When you need a new card, don't get caught up in whether it will earn you frequent-flier miles or comes in some groovy designer color. Your only concern should be to snag the lowest possible interest rate. A smart place to shop is, where you can compare hundreds of cards. Remember, those great introductory offers are the come-on to get you signed up, so make sure you know what the interest rate will be when the honeymoon ends. And just say no to any card that charges an annual fee. That's silliness in today's competitive market. —Suze Orman

What is art? That's a question for philosophers. For our purposes, we'll define it as you'll-know-it-when-you-feel-lost-trying-to-buy-it. Nicholas D. Lowry, president of Swann Galleries, an auction house in New York City that specializes in prints, posters, photographs, books and other works on paper, offers the following advice to those looking to give their homes that ineffable visual lift:

"The best way to buy art is just to throw yourself in—find something you love and buy it. You don't need a million dollars, you don't even need a thousand dollars—you can buy art for a hundred or less. A great place to go is flea markets. Or, if you form a good relationship with a dealer, you can learn an awful lot, but prices will be higher. That's where auctions come in. At auction the price something sells for is the amount that the people in the room think it's worth. But you have to know what you like. "If you haven't been possessed by something you must have, the first thing to do is to figure out what moves you, because art takes so many different forms—paintings, sculpture, books, drawings, jewelry. Then you should try it on and see how it fits. Wear it for a while. If you hang a painting in your home, does it make you feel better? Do your friends talk about it a lot? Does it make you feel good to talk to your friends about it?

"I'm from the school that says art is anything that makes you happy. Once, when I was in a supermarket in Portugal, I found a funny can of frankfurters that was wrapped in an American flag design. I still have it in my apartment. It might not be art, but I have it on display as if it were." —Susan Chumsky

A Car
The first step is to figure out how big of a vehicle you want: Do you need four doors? What do you usually carry in the trunk? How often do you want to gas up?

Leasing is best if you plan to change vehicles every few years, write off your vehicle on your taxes, want a lower monthly payment and can predict how many miles you'll drive a year. If you intend to keep your vehicle for three or four years or drive far more than the 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year covered under an average lease, buying is the way to go.

To familiarize yourself with what's out there, visit J.D. Power and Associates (, a California-based market research firm that surveys more than 50,000 new-car buyers annually to find which models rank highest with their owners. Consumer Reports ( publishes an annual car issue with its recommendations, and IntelliChoice ( calculates cost of ownership, including repairs, which is a strong indicator of quality.

A number of Web sites, like, can help you figure out how much the dealer paid for a car, what the manufacturer's asking price is, and what the average customer is actually paying. If you have a PC or a recent version of Netscape, you can go to, click on Compare Cars, and see hundreds of vehicles side by side.

Once you've narrowed the search, start test-driving. Some companies offer extended test-drives; General Motors allows you to take most models home for 24 hours.

Finally, send a fax or e-mail with the name of the vehicle and the features you want to nearby dealerships, asking them to bid on your business. They may be most willing to negotiate at the end of the month (when they're trying to meet sales quotas and manufacturer contests often expire) and in the summer (when dealers clear their lots to make room for the new car season in October). —Michelle Krebs

A Doctor
Finding a good physician—from GP to brain surgeon—is daunting, especially when you've just moved or a new insurance plan requires you to pick from an endless roster of meaningless names. The obvious place to start is with a recommendation. Grill friends, colleagues or, better yet, any doctors you know (ask them whom they would recommend to a family member).

Barring a reference, start interviewing. Call a few doctors on your health plan (you can also get a free listing of general practitioners and specialists in your area on sites such as, and set up appointments to talk on the phone or in person. If a physician refuses, he or she likely won't have much time for you as a patient either. Make sure the doctor has full privileges at a major hospital, and find out about her accessibility. Is she on call 24 hours a day? Are there others in her practice who can treat you if she's unavailable? Does she respond to e-mail?

If you like her answers, and her style, the next step is to check her background. You can contact your state's medical board to see if she's ever been disciplined and look through the records at your county courthouse for multiple malpractice suits—or pay $8 to $125 to do this online ( is one of the more pricey services, but it's thorough). Keep in mind, however, that state boards may not reveal all disciplinary actions taken against a physician. Also, many excellent doctors get sued, particularly those in specialties like neurosurgery and ob-gyn (for example, according to a survey of 2,185 MDs belonging to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, more than three quarters have received a claim against them, and 42 percent have had three or more claims).

All this legwork just to get an appointment makes an outfit like Best Doctors sound mighty appealing. It polls top physicians nationwide to find their recommendations in hundreds of specialties, then, for a fee, uses the information to match you with specific MDs. The various services are offered through certain insurance plans and employers as well as to individuals through or 888-362-8677. —Lauren Gravitz