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The First Thing You Should Do in 2010

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If you're like most investors, you've probably breathed a sigh of relief now that 2009 has helped you recover some of the losses that you were dealing with two years ago. But that doesn't mean you can afford to coast on last year's successes. If you still want to improve your investing results for 2010 and beyond, you'll want to make sure you take the right steps going forward.

When I looked at this question last year, I pointed out that one of the best ways you can keep your investing plan on track is to keep yourself from procrastinating. Even though times are still tough and the temptation is still strong to put off things like saving for retirement, the past year has shown just how vital it is for you to take advantage of opportunities in the financial markets whenever they present themselves.

Don't wait up
The fact that you have until April 15 to contribute to an IRA for 2009 gives you even more time to put off making your annual contribution. And I'll be the first to admit that getting your money into an IRA at the last possible moment is better than never contributing at all. So if you haven't had a chance to make a contribution for 2009 yet, by all means, find the money and open an IRA or make a deposit to an existing account in the next few months.

But there's a better way to think about saving for retirement. If you make it a true priority, then you'll stop asking when the last moment is you can contribute and instead start thinking about your first opportunity. Today, for instance, is the first business day you can make contributions for 2010. By getting your money in quickly, you can enjoy the benefits of tax-deferred growth that much sooner.

The price of waiting
That's a lesson that many people learned the hard way during 2009. The longer you waited to invest during the recent rally, the more you had to pay for shares -- and the more gains you gave up along the way. Just take a look at the following examples:

Stock

Value If You Contribute Early

Value If You Contribute Late

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  )

$35,027

$28,733

Deere & Co. (NYSE: DE  )

$28,226

$26,054

Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  )

$39,725

$33,906

Chevron (NYSE: CVX  )

$27,416

$24,444

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  )

$37,407

$29,268

PotashCorp (NYSE: POT  )

$51,734

$39,906

SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE: GLD  )

$37,495

$31,253

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

In this example, two investors made IRA contributions each year from 2005 to 2009. One investor always waited until the beginning of the following year before contributing to an IRA. The other investor, conversely, rushed to get money into the IRA as soon as possible after Jan. 1 for the current year. In essence, the first investor lost a year's worth of appreciation on purchases -- and that can cost you plenty of money when you invest in stocks that rise over the long haul.

Other benefits
Everybody wants to make more money. But that's not the only reason why making your IRA contribution early is a smart move. Here are some other things to consider:

  • No last-minute panic. IRA providers are geared up to handle last-minute contributions, but mistakes can cause big problems. By getting your money in well in advance of any deadlines, you give yourself extra time to fix any problems that may arise.
  • Saving over time. It's hard to come up with $5,000 all at once. If you make several smaller contributions throughout the year, however, you can save in more manageable chunks. That should help you ensure that you contribute the maximum each year -- something that can be hard to do if you're trying to make a last-minute deposit.
  • Investing smarter. When you leave your IRA contribution to the last minute, you don't leave yourself much time to figure out which investments might work best for you. Early contributions give you the leisure to pick the best investments for your retirement portfolio.

Best of all, it's incredibly easy to open an IRA. So don't wait even one more minute. Start out 2010 on the right note by contributing to a retirement account today, and you'll be setting yourself up for success throughout the year.

Once you get money into your retirement account, what should you do with it? Todd Wenning points the way with five strong stocks for your IRA.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger will make his 2010 IRA contribution tomorrow. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy always keeps you ahead of the game.


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Dan Caplinger
TMFGalagan

Dan Caplinger has been a contract writer for the Motley Fool since 2006. As the Fool's Director of Investment Planning, Dan oversees much of the personal-finance and investment-planning content published daily on Fool.com. With a background as an estate-planning attorney and independent financial consultant, Dan's articles are based on more than 20 years of experience from all angles of the financial world.

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