The 1 Thing You Must Do to Make 2014 a Great Year

Time certainly flies when you're having fun -- and much fun was to be had this year, with all three major market indexes returning more than 20% year to date and the S&P 500 soaring to a fresh all-time closing high to end the week.

To keep this joyous spirit going throughout the next couple of days leading up to Christmas, I've decided to once again count down this holiday season with my own Foolish rendition of the "12 Foolish Days of Christmas." Instead of turtle doves, French hens, and partridges invading pear trees, you'll be privy to high-growth stock ideas, game-changing innovations from a wealth of industries, unique ways to fuel your retirement account, and so on.

Over the previous 11 days of our Foolish holiday kickoff, we've counted down the:

Now it's time to move the countdown lower by a notch for the final time!

"On the first day of [Foolish] Christmas, my true love gave to me ..."

The one thing you must do to make 2014 a great year!
Despite rattling through countless stock picks above that could help you overseas, or pointing out a dozen companies on the precipice of more than doubling their profits in 2014, the fact remains the same year in, and year out, that the one thing you must do in order to beat the market is to invest in yourself! Let's have a look at a few of the ways you can invest in yourself in 2014 in order to become a better investor.

Buy stocks that pay a dividend
One of the easiest and most effective ways of investing in yourself is by purchasing companies that pay a dividend. Stocks that pay a dividend may not always offer the most attractive growth rate, but simply paying a consistent dividend is often a sign of a healthy and sustainable business model. The secret, of course, is separating an average dividend from a great dividend that's capable of growing for decades to come. In addition, it's been proven that compounding dividend growth is one of the primary keys to wealth creation over the long-term, so the earlier you start, the better.

As an example I'd suggest looking into a company like Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) , which can maintain strong cash flow from its slowly shrinking legacy PC business to pay its current 3.6% yield, but still has plenty left in the tank to fuel its research and development of cloud-computing hardware and chips intended to be used in mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Maximize your retirement investments
Speaking of investing for the long term, it all starts with maximizing your retirement contributions on a yearly basis.

For 2014, the contribution limit for tax-deferred retirement plans such as 401(k)'s will remain unchanged at $17,500, but that doesn't mean they're any less valuable a retirement tool. These investment vehicles provide the ability for investments to grow over the long-term while allowing Americans the possibility of an upfront tax deduction based on their income. Best of all, some businesses match employee contributions, in some case dollar-for-dollar up to a specified annual salary amount. If you aren't taking advantage of this, you're leaving potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table over the long run.

Individual retirement accounts also offer an innovative way for investors to grow their wealth over time. Traditional IRAs allow for a $5,500 contribution limit this year and let qualified investors take part, or all, of that deduction on their 2013 taxes. Retirees will, however, pay taxes on the capital gains once they begin taking their distributions at age 59 1/2. The other common IRA vehicle, the Roth IRA, offers no upfront tax deductions, but is a very intriguing investment option for the younger generation since it allows your investments to grow completely tax-free over time!

Read more!
Finally, one of the best things you can do to improve your own investing habits is to read about the successes and failures of some of Wall Street's most prominent investors, including Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett. Last year, decade-long Foolish veteran John Reeves released his list of 10 indispensable books to consider reading that could give you the competitive advantage over other traders that you're looking for.

You can't hit a home run if you aren't willing to swing the bat
Millions of Americans have waited on the sidelines since the market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, too scared to invest and put their money at further risk. Yet those who've stayed out of the market have missed out on huge gains and put their financial futures in jeopardy. In our brand-new special report, "Your Essential Guide to Start Investing Today," The Motley Fool's personal finance experts show you why investing is so important and what you need to do to get started. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.


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