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Smart Buying

The Best of Everything, 2011

Our annual awards choose the standouts in stocks, funds, credit cards, travel, tech, apps, cars and more.

Want to know which cars are most energy-efficient? We’ve got a lineup in every price range. Need to find the best place to shop for health insurance? We’ve got it covered. Or how about the best exchange-traded fund if you’re looking for dividends? That's on our list, too.

Our annual awards choose the standouts in stocks, funds, credit cards, travel, tech, apps and cars. We picked the brains of our staff experts to find out which products and resources they swear by. Find the full list below.

SEE ALSO: Our Slide Show of the Best of Everything 2011

Best investing apps

If you invest in a wide range of assets and depend on financial news, you’ll love the Bloomberg app. It provides real-time quotes for stocks and major stock indexes, government bonds, commodities and currencies worldwide. But more important, it gives you the same breaking economic and financial news that Bloomberg’s worldwide team of journalists produces for the Bloomberg Web site. And with a manageable list of categories, the app is easy to navigate.

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Morningstar's free app gives all the basic data on a stock, plus its proprietary Morningstar rating, a snapshot of the company’s financial health, and what the bulls and bears are saying about it. Plus, you’ll get weekly updates of Morningstar’s top-rated mutual funds, stocks and ETFs. Pay $185 a year for the premium service and get full reports on funds and stocks.


Best foreign stock

The CEO of Accenture (symbol ACN) is French, the company is based in Ireland, and the employees—experts in information technology, management and government operations—are spread among 53 nations. Accenture sits on $5.7 billion in cash, has low debt plus a terrific ten-year annualized return of 16.3%.

Best dividend-paying stock

Chevron (CVX) is a cash machine disguised as an oil-and-gas conglomerate. It has paid a dividend every year since 1912 and should boost that dividend at an 8% annual clip through 2016. Chevron has sold some of its less-profitable refining assets and expects its energy-production to grow significantly starting in 2014.

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Best growth stock

Pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts (ESRX) is positioned for gangbuster growth thanks to an aging population and increasing drug sales. Earnings for the company, which also owns 60,000 pharmacies, have increased 28.4% annualized for the past five years and are projected to grow 17.3% a year for the next five years.


Best dividends fund

No matter how the market moves, manager Don Kilbride sticks to his investing approach at Vanguard Dividend Growth (VDIGX). He hunts down undervalued companies with growing dividends, producing what he calls a high-quality portfolio that currently delivers a 2% yield. This year, that quality helped keep the fund even through October 7, despite the lashing that pulled the S&P 500 down 6.7%.

Best low-minimum fund

If you’re looking to tap into the stock market with a low-minimum, top-quality fund, invest in Amana Trust Income (AMANX). This large-company stock fund requires a minimum investment of $250, or just $100 if it’s in a retirement account. Each additional investment can be as low as $25. That hasn’t hurt its performance: It gained 4.2% annualized over five years, which beat the S&P 500 by an average of 5 percentage points per year.

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Best one-stop fund

A fund that offers both growth and relative safety with stocks and bonds in a single portfolio can be a tonic in a tumbling market. Over the past ten years, the venerable Vanguard Wellington (VWELX) gained an annualized 6.0%, outpacing 96% of its balanced-fund peers. But more important, the fund shed just 11.9% from late April to October 3, while the broader market dropped 13.5%. Wellington has a 2.9% yield.


Manny Schiffres’s go-to economist

Economist Ed Yardeni’s blog is my first stop each morning for the lowdown on the Fed, the markets and our dysfunctional government. Dr. Ed’s witty delivery helps the medicine go down—plus, he does movie reviews.

Anne Kates Smith’s fave market newsletter

Market letter publisher James Stack isn’t one to be blinded by periodic market manias, and he hews to a “safety first” philosophy. His base in Montana, far from Wall Street, helps, too ($295 a year).

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Best comeback fund

Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX) has had its ups and downs since storied manager Peter Lynch retired in 1990. But since early 2000, when assets peaked at $100 billion, the fund has been particularly uninspiring. Today it holds just $13 billion. But it shows promise again now that Jeffrey Feingold has assumed the reins. He manages four other Fidelity funds, including Trend (FTRNX), which has handily beaten its benchmark during Feingold’s nearly five-year tenure.


Best fund newsletter

For sheer depth of information, you can’t top No-Load Fund Analyst ($600 a year). Editor Stephen Savage fills issues with in-depth fund profiles, market analysis and interviews with fund managers. Hulbert Financial Digest says its stock-oriented portfolio returned 4.0% annualized over the past ten years through September 30.


Best contrarian investment

The European debt crisis has turned euro-zone markets upside-down this year. But the selloff is a classic overreaction, with great companies selling at cheap prices. Take advantage with Vanguard MSCI Europe (VGK), an inexpensive exchange-traded fund that follows an index of large companies.


Best commodities ETF

GreenHaven Continuous Commodity Index (GCC) gives you broad exposure to commodities, so it’s a good inflation hedge that doesn’t track the movements of stocks and bonds. With 0.85% in annual expenses, it isn’t cheap, but it scored gains of 25.4% in 2010 and 19.6% in 2009. Year-to-date it’s down 6.6%.

Best ETF for dividends

Blue-chip stocks are a good bet now, and those with high and rising dividends are better. SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY) tracks S&P’s high-yield aristocrats, which means companies that have raised their dividends for 25 or more straight years. The fund yields 3.6% and is well diversified.

Best emerging-markets ETF

Two factors make WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend (DGS) riskier than most: small companies and emerging markets. The risk is moderated by the dividends the companies pay, which make the fund less volatile. Annualized return since its October 2007 inception: 8.7%. Yield: 6.9%.

Best muni-bond ETF

In a crowded field of good municipal bond ETFs, Market Vectors Intermediate Muni Index (ITM) offers a bit of extra income and slightly lower costs than other tax-free ETFs. It offers high quality, too: The average bond is rated double-A. Current yield: 3.0%.


Best no-fee checking account

You can open the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account with as little as $1 and earn 0.20% interest. You’ll get free checks and you’ll be reimbursed for all ATM fees. You must open a Schwab One brokerage account to qualify, but there is no minimum-balance requirement.

Best money market account

The Sallie Mae Money Market account has no minimum or monthly fee and earns 1.1%. Check writing is available, although you are limited to six withdrawals a month. Mobile banking lets you check balances, pay bills and transfer funds.


Robert Frick’s source for new thinking

Feed your brain cutting-edge articles on wealth with the SimoleonSense.com blog. Hedge-fund analyst Miguel Barbosa links to pieces on investor psychology, education, economics—the list is long and often surprising.


Best retirement planning calculator

There are plenty of calculators that crunch the numbers to show how much your current savings and contributions will be worth later. But the Quickplan Retirement Calculator at E*Trade lets you choose the retirement lifestyle you’d like to lead—and tells you how much it will cost. Choices range from an upscale dream retirement to a simpler, less costly life that may require compromises, such as a smaller house or part-time work. If your current savings plan comes up short, you can manipulate the assumptions in a variety of ways.


Best credit cards if you...

Want cash back on purchases: Chase Freedom card (www.chase.com): The no-annual-fee Chase Freedom card sweetens its 1% reward on all purchases with an additional 4% rebate for every dollar, up to $1,500, that is spent on certain categories (such as charity and dining), which change quarterly. If you charge $20,000 a year, you could earn $440.

Enjoy points rewards: Citi ThankYou Preferred card (www.thankyou.com): With this no-fee card you receive five points per dollar spent at drugstores, supermarkets and gas stations, and one point on everything else, for the first year. After that, you’ll earn one point per dollar spent. Points earn discounts on travel and merchandise or can reduce your monthly balance.

Want a low interest rate: Citizens Trust Bank Visa Gold card (www.ctbconnect.com): Not only does this Visa Gold card come with a 7.25% variable interest rate, but it has no annual fee and does not charge a foreign currency transaction fee if you use it abroad. Transferring a balance is free. You will earn one rewards point per dollar spent. Points are good for travel or merchandise.

Like to travel abroad: PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express card (www.penfed.org): Avoid foreign-currency conversion fees with this no-fee card. Also, you’ll earn five points for every dollar spent on airline purchases and one point on everything else. You must join the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, but a $20 donation to the National Military Family Association gets you in.


Best review sites for health, charity, chilling

Doctors: At Vitals.com, patients can rate about 720,000 doctors based on several criteria (such as staff courtesy and the accuracy of diagnoses) as well as write reviews. Plus, it’s easy to navigate and has some handy tools: You can filter search results based on type of doctor, insurance accepted, and illness or condition. On each doctor’s page, you’ll find information about education, hospital affiliation and board certification.

Charity: Charity Navigator rates more than 5,000 charities, making it the first and best stop for would-be donors. The site has long rated charities on the effectiveness of their day-to-day operations and on their ability to sustain programs over time. It recently expanded its rating system to include best practices, including accountability and transparency (see How Your Charity Measures Up).

Entertainment: Whether you’re preparing for a shopping trip or a night on the town, it’s hard to beat the breadth of reviews that you’ll find on Yelp.com. Search by category or neighborhood for top-rated selections and read reviews. As with any site that collects user reviews, take extreme posts with a grain of salt. If a business has a high number of reviews, you’ll get a sense of how good it is from its star rating and overall responses.


Susannah Snider’s ultimate podcast

Freakonomics, the podcast, explores themes from parenting to hitchhiking using clever economic analysis and expert interviews. Hosts Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt keep the show fast and fun. Download on iTunes or at http://freakonomicsradio.com.


Best college-savings plans

Overall value: Your own state plan is best if you get a tax break. (Residents of Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Missouri and Pennsylvania get a tax break for contributing to any state plan.)

Fund selection: The Nebraska Educational Savings Trust offers a selection of 14 individual funds from Fidelity, Pimco, T. Rowe Price, State Street and Vanguard.

Low fees: Vanguard index-fund portfolios are available in the Utah Educational Savings Plan. Total asset-based fees for Utah’s index portfolios are 0.18% to 0.26% annually.


Best solo 401(k) resource

Sole proprietors with no employees other than a spouse can contribute up to $49,000 to a solo 401(k) retirement plan in 2011 ($54,500 if they are 50 or older) and deduct the contribution. To find a vendor to administer your plan, go to www.401khelpcenter.com.


Best Roth IRAs for kids

Any child who earns income from a job—whether by mowing lawns or flipping burgers—is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, regardless of age. It’s a powerful tool that can leverage small contributions and decades of growth into a sizable stash of tax-free money in retirement—or the contributions can help pay for college or become a down payment on a house. Scottrade has a Roth IRA with no minimum-balance requirement or annual maintenance fee. You have until April 16, 2012, to open and fund a Roth IRA for 2011.


Best tech

Android phone: The Samsung Galaxy S II (AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint) and Epic 4G Touch (Sprint) are superslim Android phones with speedy, dual-core processors, brilliant 4.3- or 4.5-inch displays, and two cameras: 8-megapixel rear, and 2-megapixel front. Price: $200 to $230 with a two-year contract.

Best e-reader: Amazon’s Kindle Touch e-reader is a great little gadget with a display that’s easy to see in sunlight. Priced at $99 with ads that appear on-screen when you’re not reading and $139 without ads, the Touch runs for up to two months between charges. The new Kindle Fire ($199) is more of a hybrid. It is a fine e-reader (indoors) and, as a tablet, can play movies and games, too.

Best tablet: Apple finally has some serious competition in the tablet market, but its iPad 2 remains the slate to beat. Starting at $499 for the Wi-Fi model with 16 gigabytes of storage, the iPad 2 wins with a stunningly slim design and a well-stocked online store with more than 140,000 apps.

Best streaming devices: Roku streaming players route online video and audio services, such as Netflix and Pandora, to your living-room TV. Petite and reasonably priced ($60 to $100), these set-top boxes have built-in Wi-Fi and work with just about any TV.


Best energy-efficient cars

Nissan Leaf SV: For less than $3 per charge, the electric Nissan Leaf SV ($33,630) will take you 100 miles with zero emissions. You’ll pay about $430 a year to “fuel” this small hatchback. The Leaf comes with a navigation system to show you how far you can travel and is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Toyota Prius Two: The poster child for fuel sipping since its 2000 debut, the Toyota Prius Two ($24,280) gets 51 mpg city and 48 highway. Step up to the top-of-the-line Prius Five and you can opt for an advanced technology package that combines dynamic cruise control with a precollision warning system. Annual fuel costs are just $1,050.

Audi A3: Want luxury with fuel economy? The diesel version of the Audi A3 ($31,125) hauls five passengers and gets 30 miles per gallon city and 42 highway. Although diesel costs a little more than gasoline, annual fueling runs $1,670—which makes it 30% cheaper than the gas-engine A3. Serious diesel power will have you white-knuckling the wheel.

Ford Fiesta SE: Gas-only efficiency comes in a wallet-friendly package in the Ford Fiesta SE ($17,085). The Super Fuel Economy package (included in pricing above) adds an aerodynamic body kit and Ford’s new powershift automatic transmission, bringing mileage to 29 city and 40 highway. A year’s worth of gas is $1,600.


Best web sites to find insurance information and quotes

Health insurance resource: A new tool at HealthCare.gov lays out all of the health insurance plans available in your area, including policies from private insurers as well as state high-risk insurance pools. You’ll see details about benefits, including deductibles, co-payments, restrictions on doctor choice, and what percentage of applicants were denied or had to pay a surcharge because of their health status.

Health insurance quotes: EHealthInsurance.com provides personalized quotes and policy details from many insurers based on your age, location and health.

Homeowners insurance calculator: Go to Accucoverage.com, input details about your house, pay $7.95, and you’ll immediately receive an estimate of your home’s replacement cost. You may be underinsured, in which case you’ll need more coverage, or overinsured, in which case you can dial back coverage and save money.

Medicare Advantage selection: Medicare.gov’s Plan Finder tool is the best resource for choosing a Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage plan. Provide information about your prescription drugs and you’ll see what each plan in your area will cost in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.


Best cell-phone plans

Prepaid: The Boost Mobile Monthly Unlimited plan is $50 to $60 a month, depending on which phone you buy, for unlimited talk, text and Web. Boost’s “Shrinkage” perk lowers your monthly bill by $5 for every six on-time payments.

Unlimited: If you’re a data-hungry smart-phone user who watches Netflix movies and uploads HD videos at 4G speeds, pick Sprint’s Simply Everything Plan. At $100 per month, it’s not cheap. But Sprint won’t slow your connection or impose usage caps.

Cheap talk-text-surf: Unlimited plans are nice, but what if you use your cell phone sparingly? Virgin Mobile’s no-contract PayLo Talk & Text plan offers 1,500 phone minutes, 1,500 text messages, and 30 megabytes of Web access for just $30 a month.

Cheap talk only: If you use your phone only for quick chats or emergencies, the Consumer Cellular Anywhere 100 plan is a good deal: 100 minutes for $15 a month. It uses AT&T’s cellular network and has a nice selection of reasonably priced phones.


Best online music service

With Spotify, download the software and you’ll have access to more than 15 million tracks; it also organizes the songs you already own. On the free version, you’ll be capped at ten hours of listening each month, but for a monthly subscription of $5, you’ll get unlimited, ad-free access to any song at any time (mobile device access costs more). What truly sets Spotify apart is its social element. With its seamless Facebook integration, you can instantly share a song with others while discovering new music on your friends’ playlists.


Best wine discounter

Take advantage of flash sales on premium wines with Lot18. Wine producers that sell through Lot18 offer bottles at substantial discounts and ship them directly to you (the site frequently offers free shipping with no minimum purchase). Not sure what to buy? See reviews from Lot18 as well as from other critics. Recently, a duo of 2006 Marimar Estate La Masia Pinot Noir wines, originally $80, sold for $48. Membership is free at Lot18.com, but you need to register to receive an invitation. (Note: Several states do not allow wineries to ship wine to consumers.)


Best budget site

Mint.com's colorful charts paint a clear and complete picture of your finances online or on your smart phone. The free program automatically categorizes your spending, helps you create a budget and shows whether you’re keeping it. You can compare investments to benchmarks and see your asset allocation among all your accounts. It flags unusual transactions to help prevent fraud. Bill reminders by e-mail or on your phone help you avoid late fees.


Best gift card

The most highly evolved gift card on the planet comes from Starbucks. It doubles as a rewards card—you earn rewards points toward free drinks and other stuff. View transaction history, protect your balance if the card is lost or stolen, reload it automatically, and even have friends reload it via a Facebook app.


Mark Solheim’s car price bible

You want a new set of wheels and know you shouldn’t pay sticker. But what should you pay? TrueCar.com tells you what a good (and great) price is, based on what others paid. You can even lock in a price with a local dealer.


Best travel headphones

Bose MIE2 in-ear headphones ($130) offer the depth and fullness of sound found in pricier and bulkier models that take up precious space in your carry-on luggage. Blaring background noise is muffled because of the in-ear fit, which also lets you hear intricate guitar solos without having to crank up the volume. All that high fidelity can be packed in a carrying case small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Plus, there’s a microphone on the cord that lets you switch from song to phone call in a snap. Apple users can add a volume control.


Cameron Huddleston’s money-saving shopping site

I’m a tightwad, but I won’t buy second-rate products just because they cost less. That’s why I love Cheapism.com. It lists low-priced products in nine categories (including electronics, kitchen and travel) and tells you which are worth buying.


Best site for furniture at deep discounts

Home-décor flash sites sell furnishings and accessories for as much as 60% to 70% off retail. Membership is free and you can earn incentives if you invite friends to join. There are several good sites (see www.thefoundary.com, www.gilt.com/sale/home or www.myhabit.com), but the best for modern design is Fab.com. It offers high-quality goods for home, work, outdoors, kids, pets and more. Recent offerings included sleek, sustainable Yube Cube modular storage units for $70 to $455 (all 30% off retail); and the Mag Table, by Offi, which can be used for magazine storage or seating, or as a table or laptop desk, for $92 ($199 retail).


Best car option worth the extra expense

Rearview cameras won’t be standard equipment until at least 2014. In the meantime, this is an option worth the extra cost: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 18,000 people a year are injured in back-over accidents. Many current models include backup cameras in the rearview mirror on higher trim levels, but otherwise expect to pay a grand or two extra for the feature in a package or combined with the navigation system. It’s rarely offered as a stand-alone option.


Smart stops before your next vacation

Travel booking site: Kayak.com remains the best site for consistently finding the lowest fares. It scours hundreds of sources, and it can find options if your travel date and destination are flexible—an excellent strategy to bag the cheapest fares.

Airfares forecast site: Bing Travel gives you confidence you’re getting a good deal on plane tickets with its “price predictor.” Plug in your desired itinerary and your results will include a recommendation to buy now or wait for a better fare.

Frequent-flier program: With Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, you’ll pay no fees to book, to rush order, or to change an award ticket. Other airlines charge $15 to $150 for those services. Plus, there are no blackout or expiration dates.