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Accelerate Your Financial Independence Day

You have the best job in the world, right? You wake up every morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and you just can't wait to get started. Every day, you think to yourself with a smile, "I love my job. I want to work here until I retire -- no, better yet, until I die."

If you're that person, congratulations on finding the perfect gig. Apparently you don't need to worry about retirement. If you're like the rest of us, though, you don't live to work; you work to live. Most of us simply want to live comfortable lives and spend time with our family and friends. Our jobs are our means to those ends, not what defines us.

We can agree that a comfortable retirement is an admirable -- and, believe me, achievable -- goal for the masses. Some of us might decide we never want to give up working in one way or another, choosing to ditch the daily grind and spend some time volunteering. Some of us might decide to forfeit a safe and steady paycheck so that we can land the perfect job. No matter how we hope to spend our future, it helps to have enough money stashed away so that our basic needs are met. Then we can focus on our dreams.

Get started -- now
Unfortunately, pension plans and automatic comfortable retirements are a dying breed. My guess is that this isn't shocking to any of you. Instead, the path to retirement is one you travel alone. You sock away whatever you can -- the more, the better. Some of you might be joining the retirement journey a bit late. That's fine, too. The key is that you're here today.

Let me explain why it's so important to get on the path to retirement -- today. First: We're all mortal. If we want to be able to reach for our dreams before we leave this world, the sooner we get started, the better. Second: We've got to consider inflation. For the sake of discussion, let's say your retirement goal is $1 million. If it takes you 20 years of investing to get to that mark, inflation will have taken a toll. At 3% a year, $1 million in 20 years will only have the purchasing power of approximately $550,000 today. In fact, at that rate, you'd need about $1.8 million to have the lifestyle that $1 million can buy today!

No pain, no gain
There's no question that the first step is the toughest. If life already demands your entire paycheck, starting to invest for your future may seem unattainable. It's not. But it's not going to be easy. Here's a chart that shows the ugly reality of what it takes to get to $1 million in savings for a person who:

  • Makes $50,000 a year today
  • Receives inflation level raises, with inflation estimated at 3% per year
  • Invests a straight percentage of salary
  • Receives the stock market's historical long-run rate of return of about 10%

Savings
Rate

Annual
Savings

Years away from
$1 million*

5%

$2,500

52

10%

$5,000

42

15%

$7,500

36

20%

$10,000

32

25%

$12,500

29

30%

$15,000

27

35%

$17,500

25

*In inflation-adjusted dollars.

The simple truth is that the more you invest today, the quicker you'll get to your goals. The extra money will compound that much faster, and inflation won't have as much time to build up.

How to get there
Of course, going from saving 0% to saving 35% (or more!) is tough -- and often painful. There are, however, some tips you can use to help increase your savings rate and minimize the ouch factor. You can:

  • Instantly double your money, thanks to 401(k) matching and tax-deductible contributions
  • Invest your raises -- after all, you were living on your salary before the raise
  • Work a bit of overtime, and invest that extra pay
  • Invest any bonuses or other surprise money you receive
  • Sign up for any automatic employer retirement funding, as plans might require you to opt in to receive benefits

OK, we've established that deciding to invest and actually coming up with the money is the toughest part of shifting your retirement plan into gear. What's the next challenge? Picking investments. There are tens of thousands of stocks and mutual funds worldwide, and they're all vying for your investing dollars.

The specific investments you choose depends heavily on, well, you. When will you need the money? How much will you need? What risk can you stomach? How you answer each of these questions will determine what investment vehicles will work for you. And remember to keep your costs down! One way is through index-tracking funds that keep management costs low. This translates into savings in your pocket -- and faster compounding for your retirement plan. The table below shows just a handful of exchange-traded funds, each with its own focus and investor target.

Fund

Description

Total Market Vipers (AMEX: VTI  )

Tracks virtually the entire U.S. market

Spiders (AMEX: SPY  )

Tracks the S&P 500 index

Asia50 ADR (Nasdaq: ADRA  )

Tracks Asian companies that trade on U.S. markets

MCSI EAFE Index (AMEX: EFA  )

Tracks markets in Europe, Australia, and the Far East

S&P Global 100 (AMEX: IOO  )

Tracks 100 giant multinational firms

Diamonds (AMEX: DIA  )

Tracks the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Emerging Market Vipers (AMEX: VWO  )

Tracks a sample of the emerging markets



Guidance along your journey
Regardless of where you start, where you're going, or how fast you plan to get there, you will undoubtedly have questions along the way. That's where Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement can help. My colleague Robert Brokamp has assembled a top-notch collection of resources and references that will arm you with the know-how to guide you to -- and through -- retirement. In addition, Rule Your Retirement's online community consists of the best experts of all -- people who've "been there, done that," and can help you along the way.

Still debating whether you'd like to retire before you turn 100? Your 30-day free trial to Rule Your Retirement starts here. You're under no obligation to subscribe.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta had no ownership stake in any of the funds mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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Chuck Saletta
TMFBigFrog

Chuck Saletta has been a regular Fool contributor since 2004. His investing style has been inspired by Benjamin Graham's Value Investing strategy. Chuck also can be found on the "Inside Value" discussion boards as a Home Fool.

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