One afternoon when I was 14, my father did something crazy.

At the time, I thought I was being punished -- but looking back on it, I realize he was just trying to keep me from making two very costly mistakes.

The most important thing in life
For you it might be your family, your career, a sport, or even a hobby. For me, at 14, it was Kelly Kapowski -- a beautiful, brunette cheerleader who starred on a teeny-bop TV show called Saved by the Bell.

So you can imagine my dismay when, in the middle of my favorite episode, dear old Dad unplugged our TV, dumped a pile of books in my lap, and dropped this bombshell: If I wanted to go to college, I'd have to start learning about investing right then and there.

Reading a bunch of investment guides (including one authored by two "Fools" I would go to work for) didn't hold a candle to watching the lovely Kelly Kapowski shake her pom-poms. But the TV wasn't going back on until I finished them, so I did -- without really paying any attention to anything I read.

Hindsight is a cruel 20/20
Thankfully, even though I blew off the idea of investing, my old man didn't -- I ended up with a college degree and without any student loans to pay off. But I kick myself every day for not starting to invest my own money back then.

Of course, I never would have thought twice about working all summer so I could drop a grand on a computer, trendy clothes, CDs and video games, or a hot new item known as a "cellular telephone," but I wouldn't have dreamed of dropping that same grand to buy stock in any of my favorite companies. Big mistake.

Had I taken $1,000 and invested it in Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) back then, right now I could buy an iMac, iPod, and iPhone -- and take them with me on a two-week yacht trip around St. Bart's.

And while $1,000 could have bought me quite a stack of pre-frayed jeans and plaid shirts back then, had I invested that money in American Eagle (NYSE:AEO), right now I'd have enough to pay my rent for a full year -- with plenty left over to pick up some designer denim in Paris.

And just look at how a few of my other favorite companies performed.


% Gain 1996-2009

Best Buy (NYSE:BBY)


Nokia (NYSE:NOK)




The bad news ... then the good
Despite my Dad's best efforts, I ended up falling prey to the same two costly mistakes that tens of millions of other hard-working people are making right this minute:

  1. Spending all of your money, without investing any of it.
  2. Waiting too long to start investing.

The good news is that if you've never invested, aren't fully invested, or just want to put more of your hard-earned money to work, today is a great time to grab the bull by the horns and take control of your financial future.

The recent market meltdown has left literally hundreds of companies selling for pennies on the dollar -- yet their businesses are as rock-solid as they have always been and they should continue to build shareholder value for decades to come.

The third mistake: buyer beware!
That's not to say that every company selling at drastic discounts is worth your hard-earned investment dollars. Let's not forget about some of my other favorite companies from the Saved by the Bell years:


% Loss 1996-2009

Circuit City (NYSE:CC)


Six Flags (NYSE:SIX)


Ouch! It's "opportunities" like these that make doing plenty of research and having a well-thought-out plan so important in today's tumultuous market.

It's also why Motley Fool founders David and Tom Gardner chose this moment to release the long-awaited follow-up to their 1996 best-selling Motley Fool Investment Guide (which I reluctantly read while dreaming of Kelly Kapowski way back when).

Their new book, Motley Fool Million Dollar Portfolio: How to Build and Grow a Panic-Proof Investment Portfolio, is a step-by-step playbook that presents all the investment strategies -- value, growth, small, large, domestic, international -- that David and Tom Gardner have developed over their storied investment careers.

No wonder it's flying off the shelves!
It details exactly what you'll have to do to effectively take advantage of today's incredible buying opportunity in plain, easy-to-understand English -- plus, it reveals the one key to investing that almost everyone forgets, Warren Buffett's 5 top stock-picking secrets, and the name and ticker symbol of the one stock David and Tom Gardner think could easily quadruple your money over the next 10 years.

This highly anticipated, long-awaited book has already sold out on, but there are still plenty of copies left at other retailers. To get more information -- including how you can secure a copy right now, simply click here.

Austin Edwards owns shares of Apple -- and the lovely Kelly Kapowski still owns a share of his heart. Apple and Best Buy are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations, and American Eagle Outfitters is a former recommendation. Best Buy and Nokia are Inside Value choices. The Motley Fool owns shares of American Eagle Outfitters and Best Buy. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.