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Deal or No Deal, America?

America, come on down! It's time to play Deal or No Deal! Your shot at complete financial freedom is just moments away!

First, pick one of these numbered suitcases, but don't open it up just yet. You're hoping for the big prize -- complete financial freedom for life. Even if it's not the million-dollar payoff, it could be one of the other American dream deals: a cushy company pension plan, an unexpected windfall of cash, or a generous 90-something billionaire suitor with a weak heart. Or it could contain just one penny.

Suitcase No. 16, you say? Then let's start playing.

Round 1: Pick six suitcases from beaming, individually spotlighted models. One by one, they'll reveal the contents that will whittle down the financial fate in your sealed bag. Your picks?

  • Suitcase No. 17: An unpaid parking ticket.
  • Suitcase No. 20: $32 in spare change.
  • Suitcase No. 4: The billionaire with the fading ticker. (Ooof. Too bad that's off the table so soon.)
  • Suitcase No. 11: Four 60-day late payments in the past three years on your credit report.
  • Suitcase No. 9: A $20 bill you forgot about in your coat pocket.
  • Suitcase No. 14: A brother-in-law who needs another short-term loan and swears this is the last one.

The phone rings, and it's The Banker. You see, he's playing the odds, too, and he's hoping that the big payouts are revealed early in the game, making the chances that the prize in your suitcase is a low-dollar loser. He's going to make you an offer for Suitcase No. 16. If you take the deal, the game is over and he keeps the contents of your suitcase. If you choose not to accept this deal, you'll have to open five more suitcases before the bank will offer you another deal.

The offer? Convenience checks! He'll give you access to all those unused lines of credit on your cards to spend as you please. And he'll even throw in a sweet low interest rate so you can go on a spending bender with little worry. (Unless, of course, you happen to violate any of the rules, in which case all low-interest rate bets are off.)

Deal or no deal?

No deal!

It's time to pick five more suitcases. Come on, crummy money situations!

  • Suitcase No. 19: A $50,000 inheritance from a great aunt. (That's gotta hurt a little.)
  • Suitcase No. 8: A clean medical bill of health in your 50s, 60s, and 70s. (That could have saved you a lot of coin in your later fixed-income years.)
  • Suitcase No. 12: A rising-interest-rate environment while you hold an interest-only mortgage. (Whew. Dodged that one!)
  • Suitcase No. 2: Plummeting real estate prices just when you need to sell your home and relocate.
  • Suitcase No. 1: A spouse with a raging case of shopaholism.

That's kind of a mixed bag. I see that line one is blinking and our banker's ready to play ball. His offer for Suitcase No. 16: A company match on your 401(k) money. That's literally free money. Have you already maxed out your retirement contributions for this year? Can you afford to pass this up? Do we have a deal or no deal?

No deal!

All-righty . let's open five more suitcases and see whether you're on your way to big riches.

  • Suitcase No. 15: A home equity loan.
  • Suitcase No. 18: A sweet annual bonus for your remaining working years.
  • Suitcase No. 3: A sweetheart who loves to clip coupons and budget.
  • Suitcase No. 7: 50,000 shares in Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) at $3.44 back in 1995 and the insight to buy long before it got to the current price of $26.89.
  • Suitcase No. 13: The complete and total collapse of Social Security!

Brrrrrrringggg! The banker decided to up the ante substantially. Here's his offer: college tuition paid in full for your three kids.

That's a toughie -- college savings vs. retirement savings. It sure would be nice to have the education costs in the bag. But even those not wheeling and dealing on a game show would be smart to put their own future financial needs in front of their kids'. There's no retirement scholarship, after all.

There are still some big prizes on the board. You could be holding the jackpot in Suitcase No. 16. You could try your luck and open four more suitcases or have college tuition costs covered. It's time to answer the question: Deal or no deal?

No deal!

  • Suitcase No. 6: A $50 Starbucks gift card. (That's a lotta lattes, but not a lotta loot.)
  • Suitcase No. 5: 10,000 shares of Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) when you first tasted its coffee, back in 1998 at a price of $5.50 per share.
  • Suitcase No. 20: $750,000 in your IRA at age 65. (Oh, nooo!)

Some cushy cash situations were taken off the table during these last two rounds. Let's see how our banker feels about it.

It's looking bleak. In fact, with so many opportunities disappearing from the prize pool, our banker has asked us to relay the following offer: A GM (NYSE: GM  ) company pension plan.

What? You don't want to have to work forever? (We've heard that one before.) Think you can do better? You could go one more round and see whether he feels like loosening the purse strings, but there's a very good chance that the offers are going to get worse. And the odds of Suitcase No. 16 panning out will go out the window.

Remember, this is your financial future we're playing for. What'll it be? Are you holding the winning suitcase, or do you want to strike a deal?

Deal in reality
Had enough high-stakes betting? The good news is that real life Deal or No Deal is a lot easier to play. The rules are less strict. For example:

The contents of your suitcase aren't a secret. Your checking and brokerage account balances are just a mouse click or phone call away. So when you're faced with an offer, you can weigh it properly against what you've got.

Your options are more obvious. For retirement, here are the five must-knows. As investors, there are (in the words of Donald Rumsfeld), "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns." As my colleague Seth Jayson put its, every time you buy a stock, you build a valuation on the best information you've got (your known knowns and your known unknowns).

You don't need to leave much up to chance. There may be some surprises in life, but most of them you can prepare for. It might be finance's forbidden word, but B-U-D-G-E-T isn't a four-letter word.

You don't have to play all-or-nothing with your finances. You call the shots, and if the credit card, mortgage, home equity loan, or other terms aren't acceptable, you can shop around.

Real-life Deal or No Deal may not be riveting enough for the prime-time lineup, but it's certainly one with better odds for the average American.

A deal you can't pass up
Need a phone-a-friend or a financial expert on call? Take a 30-day free trial subscription to the Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter service.

Dayana Yochimhas never been a game show contestant, but she knows several people who have been. Herportfolio holdings(she owns none of the companies mentioned in this article) andThe Fool's disclosure policyare both known knowns.


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