The beginning of the year is an excellent time to reflect on the past and how far you've come as an investor. And despite all the challenges we've all faced over the past couple of years, you have a lot of things you can take advantage of in your investing that your counterparts from past decades would never have dreamed possible.

A year of fiscal fitness
Over at our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, Foolish retirement expert Robert Brokamp recently celebrated the end of his year-long commitment to helping subscribers get fiscally fit. Thousands of members went through 12 months of regular exercises and evaluations, filling in monthly weigh-in surveys and talking with their peers about their struggles. In the end, most of them have gotten into much better financial shape than they were in this time last year.

Yet as Robert points out, financial planning isn't something you have to do entirely on your own. Now more than ever, there's plenty of help available -- as long as you know what to look for.

Back from the dark ages
Consider what things were like for investors 40 years ago. If you wanted to invest in stocks, you had to rely on high-priced premium brokers like Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) or Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS). Their high commissions made trading costs a significant part of investing, and while it certainly had the effect of strongly discouraging frequent trading, it also put a big dent in the overall returns of all but the longest-term investors.

Alternative investments also carried some downsides. Mutual funds weren't nearly as prevalent as they are today, and it was harder to find funds that didn't charge significant sales loads, making them costly to purchase.

Over the past 40 years, though, so much has changed for investors. Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) was founded in 1971, and since then, discount brokerage rivals like Scottrade, TD AMERITRADE (NASDAQ:AMTD), and E*TRADE (NASDAQ:ETFC) have competed to bring commission costs down to practically nothing. Some brokers, such as ShareBuilder, have focused on making investing accessible even to those of modest means.

Times have changed in many other ways as well. It wasn't until 1975 that Vanguard rolled out the first index mutual fund, a pioneer that would subsequently bring on hundreds of similar funds and later serve as the foundation for exchange-traded funds (ETFs). And now, plenty of discount providers -- including not just those listed above but also relative newcomers like optionsXpress (NASDAQ:OXPS) and Interactive Brokers (NASDAQ:IBKR) as well -- offer access not only to stocks but also bonds, futures, options, and international investments. All of those areas are ones to which most people had virtually no access even in the fairly recent past.

Getting the right advice
One thing hasn't changed, though: you still have to be careful about the financial advice you receive. Despite efforts to make brokers and other financial professionals more accountable to their clients for the advice that they give, you still have to be on guard for those few bad eggs who give the industry a bad name by putting their own selfish interests first.

Many financial professionals, though, value integrity as a crucial part of the service they provide. That's one reason why Rule Your Retirement recently announced a partnership with a nationally renowned network of financial planners. The vast majority of their members have the Certified Financial Planner designation, and the network's planners act as fiduciaries: meaning that they're legally obligated to put your interests ahead of their own.

If that sort of advice would be of interest to you, it's just one more reason why you should take a look at Rule Your Retirement. You can find out more about this financial planning network absolutely free with a 30-day trial membership, which will also give you full access to every other resource that our retirement newsletter offers.

Regardless of whether you go it alone or get help, though, you can rest assured that there's never been a better time to invest. With all the changes that have tilted the playing field in your favor, you should take steps to capitalize by getting your own investments into shape.

If you don't have a discount brokerage account yet, you could be saving huge amounts of money in fees and commission costs. Check out our broker center to find the broker that's best for you.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger got burned early with a premium broker, which served as a great incentive to figure things out for himself. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Interactive Brokers, optionsXpress, and Charles Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is always timely.