March is the month that's sometimes said to come or go like a lion, but as every taxpayer in the land surely knows, it's really April that roars.

For all too many of us, the first week of the cruelest month is spent scrambling to make sure we have all of our, ahem, documents in order; the second is spent in a headlock with tax-prep software or, perhaps, with our father-in-law's trusty accountant/golf buddy, who crunches the numbers while regaling us with long-winded tales best reserved for the 19th hole.

The good news
The good news about April 15, however, is that you have until that date to make your IRA contributions for the previous tax year. But just because you can put it off until then certainly doesn't mean that you should. Indeed, if you want to be smart and deliberate about your investment decisions (and you know you do, Fool), now's the time for all good investors to come to the aid of their portfolios. But remember: There are only three fund shopping days left!

With that in mind, I encourage you to take a look at the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service, which is available to you completely risk-free. Your trial subscription even provides access to the newsletter's back issues, so you'll be able to peruse of all the funds I've selected thus far -- any of which, by the way, could make terrific picks for your IRA.

In the meantime, here are two quick-and-dirty ways to make smart IRA decisions fast. We'll call 'em the no-brainer and the brainer.

The No-Brainer
Two words: index funds.

In a pinch, index funds such as Vanguard 500 Index (FUND:VFINX) and FidelitySpartan Total Market Index Fund (FUND:FSTMX) can be tough to beat. These funds track venerable benchmarks (the S&P 500 and the Wilshire 5000, respectively), and their portfolios include the built-to-last likes of General Electric (NYSE:GE) and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). Their low-rent price tags, moreover, give them an important competitive advantage over more expensive rivals, too.

And these days, of course, index funds come in all shapes and sizes. Worthy mid- and small-cap entrants are available, as are popular exchange-traded funds (ETFs) such as Spiders (AMEX:SPY), Cubes (NASDAQ:QQQQ), and Diamonds (AMEX:DIA).

So if it's really down to the wire and you need to write that IRA investment check, you could do worse than an index fund or ETF.

But then again, you could also do a lot better. Who, after all, wants to make a decision as important as where to invest IRA dough for the year in a pinch? No one, that's who. And so it's for that reason that we bring you.

The Brainer
As big a fan of index funds as I am, I'm a bigger fan of assembling a portfolio that includes both actively and passively managed picks. Why so? Well, just as small-cap stocks sometimes outpace the big boys -- and just as value sometimes trumps growth -- indexing and active management frequently trade pole position. Indeed, over the last five years, the typical actively managed fund has trumped the S&P by a sizable margin.

And that's just the typical actively managed fund. Imagine the possibilities if, when you went fund shopping, you brought the same kind of analytical rigor to bear on funds that some folks bring to stocks.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. That's precisely what we do each month in the pages of Champion Funds. I highlight both index picks and Championship-quality funds that are actively managed. These funds sport talented stock pickers with long-term track records of success. They also have reasonable price tags. Indeed, the average expense ratio of the funds I've recommended to subscribers hovers around 1%; the industry's typical entrant will ding you roughly 1.5%.

In terms of performance, the newsletter's focus is on the long term, and while we just celebrated our first anniversary last month, here's what I can report: So far, so good. Taken together, my picks have bested the S&P by more than four percentage points -- a significant margin in the world of mutual funds, not to mention in the world of IRAs. So, if you're currently contemplating where you should plunk down 2004's $3,000 contribution limit, you owe it to yourself to read through Champion Funds.

And in the meantime.
Don't wait until tax-filing day is upon you to make your IRA contribution decision, OK? If you're anything like me, you're going to be busy enough as it is.

This article was originally published on March 1, 2005. It has been updated.

Shannon Zimmerman runs point on Motley Fool Champion Funds, the newsletter that strives to beat the market while putting the fun back in fund investing. If you're interested in taking a risk-free gander at the cream of the fund industry's crop, your 30-day trial ishere. If you're interested in buying into a fund or two, you can find a broker here. Shannon owns shares of Fidelity Spartan Total Market Index. The Fool has adisclosure policy.