There is no place over the past 100 years where your long-term savings would have fared better than the stock market -- not in bonds, not in real estate, not in gold, and certainly not in Beanie Babies.

But before you enter your first ticker symbol on your Fool Portfolio tracker, before you start tracking the Dow's every move, before you run the numbers on a company's cash flow, you should set some expectations.

One good rule of thumb, we think, is that if you have money you won't need for at least five to 10 years, and hopefully longer, then you should invest it in the stock market. Money earmarked for earlier use (such as a down payment on a house or college tuition) should be put in a short-term savings vehicle such as a money market account, savings account, or certificate of deposit (CD). And, heaven forfend, if you have high-interest credit card debt, send all your extra shekels directly to your lender and pay off that bill!

For long-term money, you'll be hard-pressed to find higher historical rates of return than in the stock market. As measured by the S&P 500, the market has posted an average annual return of roughly 10% since 1926. But the market can drop big-time in the short term, as it did from 2000 to 2002. So be ready for the ups and downs.

Nevertheless, over the long term -- during bull markets, bear markets, Depressions, recessions, and elections -- the stock market has generally been the place to be. And a brokerage account will get you there, where you can invest in the likes of PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Home Depot (NYSE:HD), Dell Computer (NASDAQ:DELL), or any public companies that interest you.

If you want to buy stocks, however, you're going to need a brokerage account. Learn about choosing the right one in our Broker Center.

And for guidance on how to pick the right stocks, visit our Investing Basics area and our Fool's School. For a more interacive education, check out our acclaimed How-to Guides and online seminars.