Q. We want to buy stock for our two 12-year old grandsons--- stocks they would enjoy following. Do you have any suggestions? We'd like stocks with a good possibility to go up, or at least not crash and with products they may be familiar with.

---T.P., Corpus Christi, TX


A. With hindsight, we should all have bought real estate on the island of Sodor, the home of Thomas the Steam Engine. Having missed that opportunity, I think you are asking the question in the wrong direction. It's what the kids buy or want to buy that will drive the stocks that sell the products. It certainly won't be what you or I think will be a good investment for kids.

If you want confirming evidence, consider the Stein Roe Young Investor fund, established in 1994 with the idea of creating a fund that would be interesting (and profitable) to young investors. (Learn more at: http://moneycentral.msn.com/scripts/webquote.dll?iPage=qd&Symbol=SRYIX&Funds=1 ) Unfortunately, the fund hasn't done particularly well, scoring in the 66th percentile over the last five years, meaning that 65 percent of all funds in its large growth stock category did better.

That said, here are some individual stock suggestions that await your further research. Pixar (ticker PIXR) is the leading edge of animation and the creator of Toy Story, Toy Story II, and Monsters, Inc.--- all wonderful movies. You might also make a bet on Microsoft (ticker MSFT) and the new x-box, its big play to develop a major presence in the electronic games market. Macromedia (ticker MACR) is going through a rough spot but its software leads the development of the world wide web, with young animators using Flash software to create the next generation of cartoon characters and animations. Borders (ticker BGP) is my candidate for top bookstore. Having associated music stores makes it an even nicer place to visit.

If you are going to commit significant money, I suggest going straight to a very broad index fund such as the Vanguard Total Market Index. Let the kids know they are investing in America.


Q. We have gotten ourselves into a financial bind. We have over $20,000 in credit card debt and can barely pay the minimum amount due. We have gotten an offer by mail for a "Disappearing Debt" loan from MBNA. Supposedly, we are pre-approved for up to $15,000 and can apply for a higher amount. The payment would be about $400 a month, as opposed to what our current minimum payments of about $600. Is it a bad idea to go with this type of loan? We don't have enough equity in our house to borrow against it and we do not have any savings set aside.

---I.G., San Antonio, by e-mail


A. There is no free lunch in consumer loans. If you read the fine print you'll find that the interest rate on these loans can range from 11.99 percent, which would compare favorably to your credit card debt, to 24.99 percent. The higher rate is probably more than you are paying on some of your cards. The monthly payment on a $20,000 six-year loan at 24 percent a year would be $526.54 a month. That would be a small monthly savings over your minimum payments.

There aren't any easy solutions in this situation because you have to pay for what you've already spent. One answer is to leave things as they are and try to come up with enough extra money so you can pay more than the minimum on your highest interest rate card. When that is paid off, apply the entire payment from the first card to the second card. Keep on doing it until the debt is paid off.

A consolidation loan may--- repeat MAY--- bring a lower interest rate but don't assume it. Many carry higher interest rates and commit you to very long payoff terms.

When you get into tough situations like this, the best thing to do is look for additional work so you can earn enough to pay the loans off faster.