So there I was, at my desk, just having figured we were no more than a quarter away from being debt-free after starting more than $45,000 in the hole in late 1998. Man, was that a liberating experience. I've rarely felt that excited since.

On that same day, a little more than five years ago, I opened our very first brokerage account. Though I felt so satisfied, what I remember most is the confidence with which I entered the wild world of investing. I thought I had good reason to feel confident. After all, I had followed David and Tom Gardner's advice from You Have More Than You Think and waited to plop down money till I knew we would be debt-free. I had also read extensively, talked stocks on the boards at, and dabbled in financial statements.

Unfortunately, what would come next would be incredibly humbling. But, ultimately, it would also make me a better investor.

We lost -- a lot
As I look back over our old brokerage statements, I see that the first three years of my so-called investing career resulted in a 28.3% net loss. It wasn't pretty. I should mention that the three-year span we're talking about -- from the end of 1999 to the end of 2002 -- featured spectacular losses for lots and lots of people. But that can't be an excuse. Others over the same period soundly beat the market. And many more poured cash into the falling market to take advantage of buying opportunities.

The truth is that my returns exactly correlate with mistakes I made, such as failing to reinvest dividends when I had the chance. (You can learn more about the damage I did to my portfolio with that move here.) My other miscues were numerous. For example, I bought shares in Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) shortly after CEO Jeff Bezos was named Time magazine's Man of the Year. And my 2001 investment in then-unprofitable Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ:AKAM) was entirely based on what I knew about the technology story. If only I had done some real valuation work. Indeed, the price of laziness during those years was steep.

A journey of fiscal discovery
I've come a long way since then. For one, I no longer invest on nothing more than a hunch. And, despite being surrounded by temptation, I avoid stocks in industries that are well beyond my areas of competence, such as biotechnology. And you know what? I'm doing OK.

My portfolio is diversified in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. My strategy is what fellow Fool Rex Moore called "index plus a few." Since March 2003, our composite return has been a modest 10.6%. That might not sound like much, but consider where I'm coming from. It's also worth noting that a full third of our portfolio is still in cash. And of what remains, more than half is invested in index funds, which I've gotten into the past two years using dollar-cost-averaging. Indeed, I've taken careful steps along my journey toward fiscal awareness. And I feel comfortable with where I am. Finally.

How I got there
Probably like many of you, my investing strategy didn't just come to me. It was formed by learning from mistakes, and reading the work of masters. And hanging out with a few smart Fools sure hasn't hurt either.

But I give the most credit to my willingness to go back and really study my mistakes. When I invested in Akamai, for example, I didn't fully appreciate how debt and mounting goodwill and intangibles would affect earnings and, ultimately, the stock price. Though I had a good hunch that the company would be a firm with some Rule Breaking characteristics someday, I lacked the intellectual framework to assess when that would be. Two years later, after some intense study, I finally dug up some answers.

My smartest, and dumbest, move in trying to make myself a better investor was to liquidate everything I couldn't reasonably value. And that included dumping my Amazon shares for a fraction of what they'd be worth today. That hurts, yet I'm still glad I did it. Had I not, I might have fooled myself into thinking I was smarter than I really was. But I needed to study. Liquidating my holdings forced my hand.

Finally, I spent all of my investing time during 2003 reading, and re-reading. I dug through Peter Lynch's One Up On Wall Street for the second time. I re-read The Motley Fool Investment Guide. I read more Lynch. I read annual reports. I studied Selena Maranjian's The Motley Fool Money Guide. And I downloaded every smart article on investing I could find. I even took one of the Fool's self-paced courses on valuation. I refused to buy a stock till I could put a price tag on it. And then I read some more.

Since I started penning stories for the Fool, I've read The Intelligent Investor, Hewitt Heiserman Jr.'s It's Earnings That Count, and Philip Fisher's Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. Each is a wonderful piece of work, and each challenges my thinking when it comes to investing.

I'm still learning... daily
In many ways, this column is a testament to all of you in Fooldom. I'm not in an ivory tower. I don't know more than you. It's just that I see investing as a pursuit that I really enjoy dedicating some time to. And I've taken enough time to master the basics. It's my firm belief that all of us here can.

You know what else? I'm still learning. Most of us are. That's why The Motley Fool exists. So, if you're debt-free or close to it, and have even the slightest interest in earning your financial independence, check out the many free resources we have here at, starting, as I did, with the Fool's School.

Or, if you want the fast track, try any of our investing newsletters. Each presents stock picks that will help you immediately get on the path to long-term profits while also teaching monthly lessons in all of the fine points of investing. You win either way. Indeed, the only way you can lose is if you do nothing. Don't be a fool. Do what I did. Become a Fool instead.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers wrote this story wearing his prized Fool ball cap. He owns shares of Akamai. To see what other stocks are in Tim's portfolio, check out his Fool profile, which is here . The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors .