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Somewhere, many people got the idea that successful investing had to be difficult. Yet even though many things about investing are indeed complicated, it's still possible for you to create a financial plan that will help you reach the goals you set for yourself.
Navigating through murky waters
I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a live chat earlier this week with Robert Brokamp, our lead advisor for the Rule Your Retirement newsletter. Over the course of a couple hours, we took questions from dozens of members of the Fool community about taxes, IRAs, and other issues related to retirement planning.
As much as I hope our participants learned from the session, what struck me the most is how much I learned from the experience. By simply paying attention to the questions that people had about their finances, it became clear to me just how much of a struggle it is for some folks to handle their basic everyday money matters. And unfortunately, so much financial planning is unnecessarily complicated, thanks to everything from thousand-page tax laws to derivative instruments and asset-backed securities.
What happened to simple ideas like spending less than you earn? What happened to rudimentary investing in stocks and bonds? Is there a way to get back that simplicity -- and will it make you a happier investor?
I think there is, and as I see it, it comes down to a few basic principles.
1. Figure out what investments suit you
Everywhere you look, you'll find people telling you that they have the perfect investment for you. But you shouldn't conclude from their stories that their way is the only way to be a successful investor. Instead, take heart in the fact that there are so many different ways to invest -- and be secure in the knowledge that many of them can get you started on the path to a financially secure future.
If you don't have any interest in becoming a financial expert, then simple investments like index funds and ETFs can give you broad-based exposure to different types of assets. Buy the ultra-simple SPDR Trust ETF (NYSE: SPY ) and you won't have to figure out whether ExxonMobil, Dell, or Kimberly Clark is the best investment for you -- you'll get them all and hundreds more companies of similar size and importance in the global economy.
Or if you think technology stocks hold the key to long-term growth, then a tech-heavy ETF like the Powershares QQQ (Nasdaq: QQQQ ) gives you automatic exposure to 100 of the Nasdaq's biggest companies, including many of the best-known tech names out there.
For me, it's the little-followed world of closed-end funds that's my specialty niche. Long before specialty ETFs even existed, closed-ends gave investors access to all sorts of unusual investments. For instance, single-country closed end funds China Fund (NYSE: CHN ) and Mexico Fund (NYSE: MXF ) have given investors in-roads into emerging-market investment opportunities since 1992 and 1980 respectively -- back when it was hard to get exposure to foreign stocks. Moreover, closed-ends offer unique bargains: the fund Adams Express (NYSE: ADX ) holds shares of many of the same megacap names you'll find in a regular index fund, but you can pick up shares of Adams at a discount of more than 15% to the total value of the assets the fund holds.
But even though closed-ends appeal to me, you might well have no interest in them. That's fine, because everywhere you turn, you'll see other opportunities for further exploration -- and behind many of those doors, you'll find chances to earn profits for your work.
2. Take the freebies
No matter how you invest, there are things anyone can benefit from. But don't let yourself get caught up in the minutiae and therefore miss the big picture.
For instance, during that live chat, we took many questions about IRAs. This year in particular, the new Roth conversion rules have created new ways for some to benefit, and with those new opportunities come a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Yet despite complicated rules and eligibility requirements, the key thing to understand is that IRAs are out there to help you save for retirement, and if you use them, you'll almost certainly be better off than if you don't.
The same is true for things like employer matching on the contributions you make to your 401(k). Yes, 401(k)s have their problems. But free money is worth taking while the getting's good. After all, as employees from FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) and American Express (NYSE: AXP ) found out during the financial crisis, you never know when those freebies will disappear, either temporarily or for good.
3. Relax and get the answers
As hard as these issues are to deal with, there's a whole world of people trying to help everyone handle their money. Whether it's a local volunteer helping people complete their tax returns or the wonderful members of the Fool community walking each other through a host of tough questions, you can find the help you need.
So don't let yourself get bogged down and discouraged. Instead, be confident, because you can make your finances everything you want them to be. That thought alone should be enough to make you a happier investor.
Successful investors take advantage of good values with profit potential. Fool contributor Alex Dumortier has found an opportunity that's too large to ignore.