Nobody wants to be the last person to buy into a sucker's rally. But if fear of bad economic times ahead makes you put off investing your money in stocks, you could miss out on the high-return years that could make you truly wealthy.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons why today's markets are making investors nervous. After close to a 50% bounce from March's lows, you may well think that we're overdue for a bear-market relapse. While some recent economic news has provided glimmers of hope, you don't have to look hard to find other, more troubling prospects for the future.

But we've been down this road before. Back then, investors who took a pass missed out on the beginning of the biggest bull market in history.

Take a trip in the wayback machine
Back in 1982, the U.S. was suffering through a different yet equally difficult set of problems. Inflation had recently peaked at nearly 15%, following a series of oil shocks in the 1970s that cascaded throughout the economy. In order to try to bring that double-digit inflation under control, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker raised interest rates substantially and pushed the U.S. economy into a painful recession. Stocks, reacting negatively, destroyed three years' worth of gains and made investors extremely reluctant to commit their money to a market whose stagnation could quickly reduce the purchasing power of their assets.

As it turned out, those who chose to stay out of the stock market had made one of the worst decisions of their investing careers. July 1982 proved to be the low point for the markets, and stocks went on a rampage over the following five years, enough to push the S&P 500 to nearly triple in value by July 1987.

Put another way, if you passed up the chance to buy some promising stocks such as the ones below, it cost you plenty in missed gains. Check out these well-known companies:

Stock

Total Return, 1982 to 1987

$1,000 Invested in 1982 Is Now Worth

$2,000 Invested in 1987 Is Now Worth

IBM (NYSE:IBM)

195%

$13,232

$8,979

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)

410%

$66,136

$25,936

Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)

457%

$13,694

$4,916

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)

196%

$25,988

$17,543

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)

1,100%

$153,031

$25,505

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)

369%

$59,663

$25,460

Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL)

419%

$141,698

$54,618

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Sure, if you'd put that money into a risk-free five-year CD or Treasury back in 1982, you probably could've gotten high interest rates -- perhaps enough to double your money in five years. But as the chart above shows, even if you had doubled your money, you still wouldn't have been able to catch up to those who had the discipline to buy stocks at their 1982 lows.

Is now the time?
The point isn't that you need to buy at the market's absolute lowest points to succeed. You can increase your profits by being particularly fortunate in the timing of your purchases, but your overall success doesn't rely on picking exactly the best day to buy.

Rather, understand that it's never going to be easier to get started with an investing program than right now. Think about it:

  • When stock prices are low, they've typically fallen because of bad news in the economy or with particular companies -- news that will inevitably be scary and tempt you to put off investing for a while longer.
  • Yet once stocks recover, you'll still have something to be scared about: the possibility that you're buying in when stocks are too expensive, and that share prices will immediately fall back and cost you money right out of the gate. That kind of psychological hit just as you get started with an investing plan can really hurt your morale.

Every investor started out trying to decide when to bite the bullet and buy his or her first stock or mutual fund. All of us managed to get it done, though. You'll find that the more you do, the easier it gets -- and once you start, you'll never look back.

So don't put off investing any longer. Every day you wait could cost you money in the long run.

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Foolish co-founders David and Tom Gardner started out like any other novice investors -- but they've built up a wealth of experience that they share in their Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter service. See what they have to teach you with a free 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger didn't hesitate to start investing, even in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy starts on time and finishes strong.