Interest rates on savings are painfully low…and the stock market is frighteningly volatile. But there still are wise things that investors can do to protect their money and take advantage of financial opportunities.

Bottom Line/Personal asked six top money experts what single thing readers can do to improve their finances in 2012…

BETTER BOND YIELDS

Robert M. Brinker

Use Ginnie Mae bonds instead of US Treasuries as a very low-risk way to invest for income. The Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA, known as Ginnie Mae) is a federal government–owned corporation that buys mortgages from lenders. Like Treasuries, Ginnie Mae bonds have no real risk of default, only interest rate risk, which means that sharply rising interest rates could make existing bonds worth less until they mature. However, Federal Reserve officials say they expect short-term interest rates to remain “exceptionally low” at least through mid-2013—and Ginnie Maes are paying significantly more interest than Treasuries.

My favorite way to invest now: Vanguard GNMA (VFIIX) is a fund with ultralow expenses that invests primarily in Ginnie Maes, and its performance ranks in the top 7% of its category over the past decade. Recent yield: 3.1%. Performance: 7%.* www.Vanguard.com

Robert M. Brinker is editor of Brinker Fixed Income Advisor, Littleton, Colorado. The Hulbert Financial Digest ranked it among the five best-performing newsletters over the past five years. www.BrinkerAdvisor.com

Jonathan D. Pond

Use a “mixed risk” strategy to balance higher yields and reduced risk. Allocate 60% of the bond portion of your portfolio to safe, short-term government and corporate bonds that yield about 2%, and allocate 40% to riskier longer-term, corporate “junk” bonds that yield about 6%. I’ve found that this strategy provides slightly better returns over time with less risk than investing in an intermediate-term bond fund.

Two attractive funds to create this mix: Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF (BSV), an exchange-traded fund, recent yield: 1.9%, www.Vanguard.com…Fidelity Capital & Income, a high-yield bond fund (FAGIX), 6.2%. www.Fidelity.com

Jonathan D. Pond is president of Jonathan D. Pond, LLC, an investment advisory firm in Newton, Massachusetts, with $170 million in assets under management. He is host of Money Smarts with Jonathan Pond, a TV program airing on PBS stations this coming March, and author of Safe Money in Tough Times: Everything You Need to Know to Survive the Financial Crisis (McGraw-Hill). www.JonathanPond.com

Robert D. Arnott

Invest in the world’s most undervalued major asset class now. The best bargain now by far is the higher-quality bonds of emerging markets, which recently were yielding about 4% to 6% annually. They sound much more exotic and risky than they are, and they will become a standard part of investors’ portfolios in the future. Currently, they represent an extraordinary opportunity because anxiety over Europe has unfairly dragged down investment-grade bond prices from both emerging-market corporations and foreign governments with booming economies and little debt.

Example of an emerging-market bond fund: iShares JPMorgan USD Emerging Markets Bond (EMB), an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that invests in a mix of about 100 government and corporate bonds, the majority of which are rated BBB or higher, from countries such as Brazil, Peru and the Philippines. Recent yield: 4.8%. Recent share price: $112.04.

Robert D. Arnott is chairman and CEO of Research Affiliates, an investment strategy and management firm in Newport Beach, California. He also is manager of the PIMCO All Asset Fund (PASAX), which has outperformed the S&P 500 stock index by an average of four percentage points annually over the past five years. www.ResearchAffiliates.com

BETTER STOCK RETURNS

Janet M. Brown

Invest in large-cap growth-stock funds. Fast-growing US corporations such as Priceline and Whole Foods have adapted well to the new slow-growth economic environment.

Most attractive fund now that invests in this kind of stock: Wells Fargo Advantage Growth Fund (SGROX). The fund’s ability to pick winners in both good and bad economic times has led to returns that rank in the top 1% of its category over the past decade, outperforming the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index by an average of 4.4 percentage points a year. Performance: 9.8%. www.WellsFargo.com/advantagefunds

Janet M. Brown is president of DAL Investment Co. and managing editor of the NoLoad FundX newsletter, both in San Francisco. The Hulbert Financial Digest ranked it among the five best investment newsletters over the past 15 years. www.FundX.com

Louis P. Stanasolovich, CFP

Reduce volatility with a fund that can bet against stocks. The continued deterioration of the European financial system and Congress’s struggle with US budget deficits will keep the S&P 500 stock index surging and plunging throughout 2012. I expect daily movements in the index of 1% or greater about 30% of the time, compared with 18% of the time in a normal year. If these scary swings keep you up at night, reduce your risk by putting 5% of your portfolio into a so-called long/short fund. A long/short strategy often is used by hedge funds and allows the manager to not only buy stocks but also to short (bet against) those that he/she expects to decrease in value.

My favorite fund now: Caldwell & Orkin Market Opportunity (COAGX) lost just 4.7% in the market collapse of 2008, compared with a loss of 37% for the S&P 500, and it has managed to beat the stock index over the past 15 years by about one-half a percentage point annually, on average, with half as much volatility. Performance: 3.6%. www.CaldwellOrkin.com

Louis P. Stanasolovich, CFP, is president of Legend Financial Advisors, a fee-only financial advisory firm with $360 million under management, Pittsburgh. He has been chosen 12 consecutive times by Worth magazine as one of “The Top 100 Wealth Advisors” in America. www.Legend-Financial.com

Ben Stein

Keep plenty of cash in reserve and stop worrying about the markets. Wall Street traders will use any news, whether it produces terror or euphoria, to try to make a buck off the rest of us. Yes, our economy has problems, and Europe is a mess, and Congress is dysfunctional—but I’m very optimistic. All that bad news still can’t stop US corporations from continuing to report great profits, and it doesn’t merit these crazy stock market swings up and down day after day. In 2012, long-term investors should keep one-third of their portfolios in cash so they don’t panic and do something silly, such as sell stocks when prices plunge, and so they can use some of the cash to buy investments at bargain prices. Put the rest in the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). It’s the simplest low-cost way to get exposure to the entire world and maintain your sanity.

Ben Stein is an economist, attorney and a former speech writer for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is coauthor of The Little Book of Bulletproof Investing: Do’s and Don’ts to Protect Your Financial Life and author of What Would Ben Stein Do? (both from Wiley). He lives in Beverly Hills, California. www.BenStein.com

*Fund performance figures in this article are annualized returns for the five years through January 31, 2012.