So Bernie Madoff, Ponzi schemer extraordinaire and mastermind of a $65 billion con job, has been sentenced to 150 years in prison. If only he could actually live that long -- he might be able to pay back all the people he swindled.

Yes, if Madoff could work a 40-hour week every week until age 221, he could at least get close. At $1 an hour -- near the top possible wage for prisoners working for Federal Prison Industries, according to the Prison Policy Initiative -- he'd earn a total of roughly $300,000 over 150 years. By investing that money with a 10% return, those earnings would grow to about $35 billion by the end of his sentence in 2159. That's assuming, of course, that he didn't end up picking another Ponzi schemer to invest it.

No joking matter
Of course, there's nothing humorous about what Madoff did to his victims. But if we put compounding to work for us and don't procrastinate, we can make the most of the time we have left. Check out these examples:

  • If you start with $25,000 and it grows for 25 years at 10%, you'll end up with $271,000 in 2034.
  • If you were to start a year earlier and let your money grow for 26 years, you'd end up with $298,000.

That's a huge $27,000 difference -- more than you originally put in -- just by letting your money grow an extra year. And that's what you're missing out on when you procrastinate. Check this out, too:

  • If you start with $10,000 and it grows for 25 years at 10%, you'll end up with $108,000.
  • If you start with $12,000 and it grows for 25 years at 10%, you'll end up with $130,000.

That's a $22,000 difference, just from investing an additional $2,000 at the outset. That's the kind of difference you're missing out on if you're not saving and investing as much as you can. It gets even better:

  • If you start with $12,000 and invest an additional $12,000 every year for 25 years, and it all grows at 10%, you'll end up with $1.4 million!

What real returns look like
Of course, you have to work to earn that 10% return. Over long periods, that's close to the historical average, but you'll see lots of ups and downs along the way. Diversifying your investments with many different types of assets can smooth out those bumps -- and prevent you from losing everything if an advisor swindles you -- but you'll still see plenty of volatility.

Some top-notch managed mutual funds can get you above the 10% threshold. The CGM Focus (CGMFX) fund, for example, has trounced the market over the past three, five, and 10 years, with top holdings that recently included Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE:PBR), and Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT). Over the past decade, it has averaged roughly 16% annually, and around 7% over the past five years. You won't find many funds with performances that powerful -- especially lately -- and even this fund may not be able to keep up such a torrid growth rate. But it still stands a chance of beating the market, and it's also a reminder that you can do rather well with mutual funds.

In addition, many individual stocks have gotten investors returns of 10% or more over the decades. Some examples include Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) at 16% and Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) at 22% over the past 20 years, as well as Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and its 24% average annualized return since 1979.

In finding individual stocks, either look to trusted sources for recommendations, or do your own digging. Think of what you know best, too. For example, if you're a guard in a prison, you might look into Corrections Corp. of America (NYSE:CXW), which sports a decade of market-beating results. Just don't ask your prisoners for investment tips.

The bottom line is that you can be powerful with your money, aiming for great results by saving more, investing soon, allocating well, and trusting time to work its magic.

Learn more:

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart. CGMFocus is a Motley Fool Champion Funds pick. Intel and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.