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Some people seem to believe that no matter what they do, things will work out for the best. However, I'm here to tell you that doing nothing isn't going to get you the results you want. With a little bit of planning, though, you'll find that your efforts will pay off handsomely in the long run.
Don't be unprepared
Recently, a number of studies have shown that most people don't have nearly as much money saved for long-term financial goals like retirement as they're likely to need. Part of this lack of preparation may result from the attitude that they don't need to worry about long-term saving because other institutions, such as employers and the government, will make sure they're taken care of.
But there's never been a worse time to believe that anyone else is going to watch out for your needs. Fewer employers offer traditional pension plans than in the past, electing instead to put the burden of saving squarely on employees through defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s.
Meanwhile, Social Security remains on course for a demographic catastrophe, as the mass of aging baby boomers threatens to overwhelm income from the smaller age groups whose income will help pay for their benefits.
The best way to assure yourself a prosperous future is to take control of your finances. These three steps will put you on the right path.
1. Max out your savings.
Trying to save money is never easy, but when times are tough, it's especially tricky to find extra room in your budget to squirrel money away for a rainy day. If you're barely making ends meet, you may think that there aren't any expenses you can trim, or extra income you can make.
The fact is that no matter how much income you earn, saving is a choice you have to make. Even some families with six-figure salaries managed to get in over their heads before the recession hit, while many who make far less still manage to save regularly.
With hints like those in our Fiscal Fitness special from earlier this year, you should be able to uncover extra ways to add a few dollars to your savings.
2. Invest like a pro.
Even those who save regularly don't always follow through by investing it well. Many people just let their employers dump their money into whatever default choice their 401(k) has, and then struggle to figure out what to do with the rest of their money.
- Large-cap stocks, with an emphasis on value stocks like WellPoint (NYSE: WLP ) and Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) for their combination of attractive valuations and margin of safety.
- Small-cap stocks, again focusing on those with attractive value characteristics, such as Markel (NYSE: MKL ) and FLIR Systems (Nasdaq: FLIR ) .
- Real estate exposure through real estate investment trusts (REITs) such as Apartment Investment & Management (NYSE: AIV ) .
- International stocks from both the developed and emerging economies, with examples like GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) and Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU ) .
- Bonds, including traditional and inflation-protected securities.
Depending on your age, risk tolerance, and financial resources, you'll learn how to put together a portfolio that works for you.
3. Know your goals.
What may look like the easiest part of a successful saving strategy is often the hardest. After you get used to it, putting money aside and investing it well become natural habits. But as time passes, your goals for the future often change.
As long as you stay on top of those changes, though, you can adjust your investments to compensate. The key is not to let things go too long without re-evaluating your needs.
There's no fairy godmother
It would be nice if someone else made sure you had all the money you'd ever need. In the real world, though, it's up to you. Luckily, you have all the tools necessary to get the job done.
For more on making the most of your retirement: