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Party on Uncle Sam

Are you a last-minute tax filer? Join the club. While you're at it, you might as well put off the after-party, too... for a few decades.

Instead of blowing your refund on April 16, plan a blowout retirement party instead. Earning 10% average annual returns, last year's average tax refund -- $2,136 -- can grow to more than $25,000 in 25 years. With that kind of dough, you can afford the brand-name champagne.

Before guests arrive:

Whet your appetite by running a few calculations. Saving and investing becomes much more palatable than shopping when real money's on the line.

Do a taste test. Which will it be? A Roth or regular IRA? Once you make your decision, run with it and max out your account. The 2004 contribution limit is $3,000, and if you're over age 50 you can throw in another $500 catch-up contribution.

Trim the guest list. If you have a bunch of old 401(k) accounts sitting idle with former employers, consider rolling them over and consolidating them into a single self-directed IRA. (Sometimes, though, it makes sense to sit tight.)

Find good help. For the ultimate investing freedom, you'll need a brokerage account. There are all flavors of discount brokerage accounts (and we prefer the discount variety to the full-service ones). Many will try to lure you with free trades or a toaster, which is all well and good if you need a new toaster. But like a bank account, there may be features that you can't live without and others you simply won't use. So shop around, andcompare and contrast.

Keep costs down. A good rule of thumb is to keep the costs of investing (your trading costs, investment subscription costs, aspirin costs) to less than 2% of your portfolio's value -- and 1.5% or less is even better. That way, you can afford to replace the lampshades your guests will be wearing by the end of the night.

More reading:

  • How can you access Roth IRA funds without paying a penalty? Robert Brokamp argues that sometimes using the Roth as an emergency fund makes sense.
  • For more on the nuts and bolts of opening an IRA, spend the next minute perusing our 60-Second Guide.

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