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Saving is looking smart again

''Where should I put my savings?'' Some years back, that question could have been answered pretty easily: Put your money in the bank or a thrift institution. Or, if feeling patriotic, buy US Savings Bonds.

Or, in the more inflationary period of the past decade, it could have been answered with another question: Why save at all? There's no return in savings, the argument went. Whatever you're buying will cost more in a few months anyway. So buy, don't save. If you don't have the money to buy, get a loan and pay it back with ''cheaper'' dollars and deduct the interest from your income taxes.

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Finally, these ideas are falling out of style. Inflation is under 5 percent. Money market deposit accounts are paying about 9 percent, and some certificates of deposit are returning nearly 10 percent. And there are some uninsured but relatively secure products paying as much as 12 percent.

So with inflation at 5 percent helping to provide real returns of 3 to 7 percent, the saver looks smart again. Savers are no longer losing so much interest that they are subsidizing borrowers. They are reaping handsome rewards.

As the rewards and attitudes toward saving have improved, so has the marketplace competing for their money. Now, instead of separate banks, brokerages, mutual funds, and insurance companies, there is a financial-services industry with a long and often confusing list of savings alternatives. Nearly every week, it seems, there is a new product that promises to give savers some advantage - such as a higher return, more safety, easier access to money - over anything offered by the competition.

''There has never been a time when individuals have gotten so much attention for their money from so many people,'' says Gordon Ramsey, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm. ''There is a multitude of people and firms out there vying for my money.''

One of the most successful of these lures has been the money market mutual fund, which at one time held over $250 billion in assets. A complex variation, the asset-management account pioneered by Merrill Lynch & Co., has become one of the most flexible vehicles for savings and investment. Banks, with their highly successful money-market-deposit and Super-NOW accounts, are offering their own variations of the asset-management account. There are also pools of certificates from banks and government agencies, US Treasury notes and bonds; municipal and corporate bonds; and annuities from life insurance companies, brokerages, and other firms with insurance divisions.

These products are part of a change in the financial-services industry which is as dramatic as the shift from the old-time general store to the modern supermarket.

In this new supermarket for savers, banks are reaching across state lines with loan offices, credit-card services, and real estate firms; interest on bank deposits over $2,500 is unregulated; and brokerages, insurance companies, mutual funds, and credit-card companies are merging or setting up partnership arrangements to offer customers one-stop financial services.

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Just two decades ago, there were only two significant nonfinancial firms dealing in financial services: Sears Roebuck & Co., with its Allstate insurance unit, and General Motors, with its auto-financing arm, General Motors Acceptance Corporation.

Today, firms like Merrill Lynch, Shearson/American Express, Prudential-Bache Securities, Gulf & Western, and Kroger are offering insurance, money market funds, pooled Treasury certificates, and a variety of loan packages.

Many of the customers in this new supermarket, however, don't know where to begin.

''Consumers are confused,'' said Ifigenia Boulgiane, a senior member of the financial-industries group at Arthur D. Little Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm. ''They are asking: 'Where can I get impartial information? Where do I go with my money, and what should I do with it?' ''

One way many people are ending the confusion is to deal with as few financial-service companies and accounts as possible.

''The research these (financial service) companies are doing is telling them that people do want to consolidate their financial services,'' observes Allan Grody, another partner at Coopers & Lybrand. ''We're becoming a more convenience-oriented, more time-conscious, more adventuresome society.''

Still, when it comes to their savings, most people do not want to be very adventurous. Since ''savings'' to most people means putting money aside for a specific purpose - the downpayment on a house, major home repairs, a vacation, college expenses, or retirement - most savers want their money someplace where it will preserve the capital as well as earn a respectable income - at least beat inflation a little bit.

Investing, on the other hand, usually means accepting some risk that you will lose all or part of the principal in exchange for potentially larger capital gains. While the range of possible investments has always been wide, the choice of savings vehicles remained fairly narrow until recently.

The first major break in this pattern was made by the money market mutual funds. Originally set up as a place for wealthy investors and institutions to ''park'' their money for short periods of time between investments, the money funds gained the attention of the general public when two things happened. First , several funds were introduced with fairly low minimum deposits, usually around

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