A friend stopped by the house recently and saw an enormous pile of mail on the dining table. Picking up pieces that had fallen to the floor when he brushed them, he instantly was drawn to a cardboard calculator from a mutual fund company, then spotted an informational brochure that his mother could use, and something that his teenage daughter should read.

"You got this from a mutual fund?" he asked. "Wow, my funds never send me anything like this."

Maybe that's because you don't ask them to.

But I asked, and about 30 firms sent me roughly 320 educational items for review.

Every few years, I look for the best educational freebies the fund world has to offer.

With the dining table overflowing with giveaway information, each piece is put to a simple test: "Is it worth one more dirty look from my wife - the most patient and understanding woman in America - to keep this on the dining table one more day?"

Material that is easy to understand without being too self-indulgent, self-promotional or self-serving is the best. While I'll let a company discuss its services in these handouts, the reality is that investors requesting these goodies generally receive sales literature, too, so shamelessly plugging the product is unnecessary.

My review did not find a single piece of literature that was invalid, misleading or wrongheaded. Many of these pieces are available on the fund firms' Web sites, but there is nothing like having something to read in your hands, so I reviewed published materials only. All had to be available for free, whether you are a shareholder with the fund firm or not.

This week and again next, I will discuss the items I liked best - for their quality, subject matter or unique approach.

If you are a fund investor who is interested in these subjects, you might want to call for these freebies, and then call your own fund company to see what educational material it offers on the issues that matter most to you.

Handheld "slide-rule calculators": I love old-fashioned, cardboard handheld gadgets that let you slide your way through inputs and outcomes. You practically cannot stop playing with them, learning something with each move. They are simplistic, but still a good jumping-off point.

AllianceBernstein L.P.'s "College Debt Crunch" calculator is one of the most interesting I have seen in a long time, because it is designed to show the long-term impact of education debt on college graduates. A few minutes playing around - or letting your children use it if they are responsible for tuition - and you are likely to increase your college set-asides immediately. You can get the calculator by calling AllianceBernstein at 1-800-227-4618. You also can order versions online - or use an electronic version - at www. collegedebtcrunch.com.

Of course, it helps to know how much money you will need to save, and the college savings slide rule from American Century's Learning Quest program gives you a quick and dirty estimate of how much you will need - and how much to invest monthly based on your child's age - to pay for a public or private education. You can get the calculator by calling 1-800-579-2203.

The asset-allocation calculator from Franklin Templeton Investments (1-800-342-5236) remains one of my all-time favorites, providing five sample allocations and allowing you to track how money invested that way would have performed over the five- to 20-year periods ending Dec. 31, 2006. This lets you measure your current strategy against others, letting you know whether you want to stay the course or need to consider a change.

Putnam Investments' "retirement calculator" slide rule - available at 1-800-225-1581 - is a two-sided, dual-purpose keeper. On one side, it allows you to determine the future value of systematic investments; it is a great way to show not only how $50 a month adds up over time, but how doubling that number - or going even bigger - will turn small monthly dollars into lifetime money. On the flip side, the calculator helps determine the future value of your current savings, which will help you see how much $10,000 will grow by the time you reach retirement, based on various rates of return and your current age.

Organizers: T. Rowe Price Group Inc. recently created a new "family records organizer" that is a terrific tool for anyone trying to get a handle on his or her finances. The freebie in this case is actually a CD-ROM - available by calling 1-800-538-2706 - that does a great job of helping a family gather and manage its records in one place. Having looked at fund freebies for years, I believe this is one of the best I have ever seen.

As long as you are calling T. Rowe Price, ask for the company's "asset mix work sheet," as it could be a very good tool for deciding how to best position your money.

Next week: More work sheets, specialty items and basic investment libraries.