I've written quite a bit about taking charge of your own retirement by opening up an IRA and making regular contributions. But what if you're like a lot of people and are scared to try to pick individual stocks or bonds? Maybe you just don't want to put in the time it would take to properly research individual companies. If this sounds like you (and there's nothing wrong with that!), index funds may be the way to go for your portfolio.

What is an index fund?
In a nutshell, an index fund lets you invest in many companies -- sometimes hundreds or thousands -- that are part of the same "index." An index is simply a collection of stocks that have something in common. Some indexes represent companies of a certain size, like the Vanguard Mid-Cap ETF (NYSEMKT:VO), which tracks stocks with market capitalizations in the 70th through 85th percentile. Other indexes track stocks in certain industries, such as the iShares U.S. Financials ETF (NYSEMKT:IYF). And some, like the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSEMKT:SPY), track well-known exchanges.

Many index funds are weighted, meaning they hold more of the larger companies in the index and less of smaller companies. For example, the aforementioned financials index has 6.7% of its assets in Wells Fargo, which boasts a market capitalization of $268.8 billion, but just 2.1% in U.S. Bancorp, which is currently valued at $77.7 billion.

There are far too many index funds to examine them all, but here are some of the best choices to help get you started, as well as their historic performance, top holdings, and reasons you might want to buy (or avoid) each one.

Are these dividend stocks a better way to go?
The smartest investors know that dividend stocks simply crush their non-dividend-paying counterparts over the long term. That's beyond dispute. They also know that a well-constructed dividend portfolio creates wealth steadily, while still allowing you to sleep like a baby. Knowing how valuable such a portfolio might be, our top analysts put together a report on a group of high-yielding stocks that should be in any income investor's portfolio. To see our free report on these stocks, just click here now.

Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Tower, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Chevron, Gilead Sciences, Google (A and C shares), Health Care REIT, Johnson & Johnson, and Wells Fargo; owns shares of American Tower, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Citigroup, General Electric, Gilead Sciences, Google (A and C shares), IBM, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Oracle, Wells Fargo, and Western Digital; and has options on Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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