If you happen to use a broker or a financial adviser, you have someone to ask for advice in this gut-wrenching market. Or at least you have somebody to yell at.

But countless investors who are investing on their own don't have anybody to turn to. No-load mutual fund companies such as




aren't in the business of offering customized investment advice. And their toll-free numbers are the only places some investors can go when the market's collapsing.

So how do these fund-company phone representatives hold up when times are tough and people are still looking for answers?

Well, I wanted to find out.

On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning I lobbed calls to Fidelity, Vanguard and

T. Rowe Price

. Each time I asked the same question: I have $5,000 to invest for at least 10 years but I am worried about the market. Where should I put my money?

The responses varied wildly -- from "put it all into stocks" to "stay in bonds." But all the people who answered my questions did their best to assess my investing experience and risk tolerance in four questions or less: What are you going to use this money for? How soon do you need it? Have you ever invested before? Do you have an IRA?

They made suggestions about which funds I might want to buy on the basis of my needs, not shove product down my throat. That, more than anything, was refreshing.

Here's a rundown of my experiences.

T. Rowe Price: Stick With Bonds

If you're deathly afraid of jumping into the stock market right now, you should call the folks at T. Rowe Price to commiserate. Both of the representatives who answered my questions were big fans of bonds.

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"The only thing making money right now is bond-based funds," said the gentleman who answered my first call. "The vast majority of stocks funds are losing money right now, and that's not the direction you want your money going. ... At least you aren't losing money in a bond fund."

Well, I can't argue with that. But what about over the long run?

"You can move out of a bond fund when the economy and the market turns around," he said. "It's doesn't look like anything will happen until the fourth quarter, barring another terrorist attack and stock market shenanigans."

His initial advice was fine, but at that point the guy started to sound like a budding Kreskin. If only anyone knew when the market was really going to turn around.

The second T. Rowe rep gave the same basic advice: Ease my way into investing with a bond fund or buy a fund with a mixture of stocks and bonds. But she held back any market predications. That was much appreciated.

Fidelity: Go Stocks!

The people at Fidelity are a lot more gung-ho about stocks than their counterparts at T. Rowe Price. Both of the individuals I talked to reminded me that over the long haul, stocks beat bonds. And if I've got plenty of time to invest and ride out the market's ups and downs, then that's where I want to be. That's true, and it's something that everybody should remember.

The first person I spoke to initially suggested one of Fidelity's less-aggressive all-stock funds, like its

(FDGFX) - Get Report

Dividend Growth fund. (The fund


fallen 28% this year and ranks among the bottom 25% of large-cap blend funds. But its longer-term record is better.)

But she also recommended looking at some of Fidelity's Freedom funds. These are funds that invest in other Fidelity funds and are designed to get more conservative as you grow older. A truly great place to go if you're looking for a diversified, all-in-one investment.

The second person I spoke to ran through his "buy stock" spiel a little too quickly. Actually, he delivered his pitch the way a telemarketer might rapidly run through the benefits of some new long-distance calling plan. All I caught was that the market goes up an average of 11% a year over long periods of time.

Instead, people will probably want to ratchet down those expectations by about four percentage points -- and that's if you're investing for a decade or more.

Vanguard: The Middle Ground

One of the people who answered my call at Vanguard was just about as bullish on stocks as that guy at Fidelity. Although he spoke a lot slower, which is a necessity if you're talking to me before noon. But the other rep was a little more realistic. He said that putting half my money in stock fund and the other half in a bond fund would be a nice start.

And since no one knows which way this market is headed, that's a pretty solid idea. Actually, I didn't hear one truly bad idea in the bunch. And that's great news for all the investors who are looking for answers.