There was once a woman who prayed every day for 20 years that she'd win the lottery. Every single day. Finally, in despair, she said, "God, I've been a true and faithful servant and have lived an exemplary life. Why won't you grant me this one thing?"

"Look," said God, "at least meet me half way -- and buy a lottery ticket."

Buy the ticket
Similarly, in order to take advantage of the greatest long-term wealth-building machine available to individual investors, you have to be in the market. And if the current craziness is keeping you away because you fear a huge drop, you're ignoring the advice of some of history's top investors.

In the latest edition of his book Stocks for the Long Run, Jeremy Siegel charted returns for a hypothetical unlucky investor who happened to invest at the absolute top of six major 20th-century market peaks. After 30 years, this investor actually accumulated four times more wealth in stocks than he would have in bonds, and five times more than in T-bills. For a 20-year period, he doubled the bonds return.

There's more where that came from
Consider John Templeton, founder of Templeton Growth Fund and widely regarded as one of the best investors of his generation. His advice about getting into the market is simple: "The best time to invest is when you have money. This is because history suggests it is not timing which matters, it is time."

Our own David and Tom Gardner, who've beaten the market by a tremendous amount in Motley Fool Stock Advisor, also eschew timing the market. "The best time to invest was yesterday," says Tom. "The next best time is today."

So even though the tongue-in-cheek title of this article implies you've missed your best chance, you can see that you really haven't. If you've got money you won't need for five years or more, just get in the game as soon as you can.

Still need convincing? I looked back to the late 1990s, specifically searching for companies that had been up 50% or more in one year. Surely, many investors back then were worried that stocks were too rich and ready for a great fall.

Well, a gnarly bear market did start up a few years later, and yes, these stocks fell. And yet despite their tremendous prior one-year gains, and despite the great bear market, their returns were magnificent for those who held for the long term.

Company

July 1996-
July 1997

July 1997-
July 2008

Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO)

50%

146%

Valero (NYSE:VLO)

63%

226%

Cummins (NYSE:CMI)

71%

286%

UnitedHealth (NYSE:UNH)

61%

238%

Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT)

74%

151%

FedEx (NYSE:FDX)

51%

153%

Ensco International (NYSE:ESV)

88%

148%

There are no guarantees
While some of the companies above have not returned to their all-time highs, history shows that if you can find superior businesses with good management, hold for the long haul, and add new money regularly, you will rarely be disappointed.

That's the advice David and Tom give to their Stock Advisor members, and they help them with not only new recommendations each month but also the top five stocks to buy right now. They've been at it a long time, through bear and bull, and their average recommendation is beating the market 48% to 9%.

Right now a special no-obligation free trial will give you access to all these stocks as well as Tom and Dave's top five stocks to buy now. Here's more information.

Rex Moore is an analyst for Stock Advisor and thinks now is a good time to buy stocks (though he owns none in this article). FedEx and UnitedHealth are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. UnitedHealth is also an Inside Value pick. This information is brought to you by the Fool's disclosure policy.