First things first: The IRA contribution countdown clock is ticking. Are you ready? Have you done everything you can (legally, of course) to save up enough for this year's contribution?

If so, give yourself a gold star and scroll down a few paragraphs for advice about a smart way to put that chunk of change to work. If not, can we talk?

A sweetheart deal
Every year by tax deadline time, you should strive to contribute as close to the maximum as you possibly can to an IRA account. Why the urgency? Well, with the possible exception of your company's 401(k) plan, IRAs represent the single best savings vehicle for serious retirement savers.

Why so?
For starters, IRAs provide tax-favored investing. Whether you invest in a traditional or Roth IRA, the amount you plunk down will appreciate without your having to pay taxes along the way. Even better, if you opt for a Roth IRA, you won't have to pay Uncle Sam come withdrawal time, either.

Sweet, no?

Pleased to meet me
Sweet, yes, but there is a trade-off. With Roth IRAs, contributions are made with after-tax dollars, while contributions to a traditional IRA can provide a tax deduction for the year you make the contribution.

No matter which way you go, the bottom line remains the same: For the 2005 tax year, you can contribute up to $4,000.

You owe it to yourself -- your future self, that is -- to get that job done.

Where to invest?
But if availing yourself of all the advantages that IRAs provide is basically a no-brainer, where to invest your contribution is a trickier question. Not to worry: As the Fool's resident fund geek, I have a none-too-tricky answer -- mutual funds.

Not just any old fund will do, of course. Indeed, when it comes to cherry-picking the cream of the crop, you should put potential contenders through their paces with an obstacle course of exacting criteria. Among other things, your fund shopping list should include seasoned and successful management teams, cheap price tags, and stock-picking strategies that won't keep you up at night.

After all, if you're looking to catch a bad case of insomnia, you can always invest your hard-earned retirement savings in individual stocks.

It takes all kinds
The good news is that while the fund industry is certainly lousy with high-priced underachievers, there are plenty of mutual fund worthies out there, too. Since we first began making recommendations in Motley Fool Champion Funds -- the newsletter service that I run point on -- back in March 2004, our list of picks has shellacked the market, beating up on it by more than 10 percentage points.

What's more, we've notched that record with funds that hail from all corners of the market. One of our best performers -- a pick that has appreciated by more than 71% since receiving the newsletter's nod -- is a value-oriented international fund with holdings that recently included the likes of GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Vodafone (NYSE:VOD), and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A).

Another of our outperformers favors domestic growth companies such as Seagate Technology (NYSE:STX), Genentech (NYSE:DNA), and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). And yep, we've zeroed in on ace small-cap, mid-cap, and fixed-income funds, too.

The Foolish bottom line
If you'd like to take a look at our complete winners list -- not to mention our model portfolios, back-issue archives, and members-only discussion boards -- you're in luck: A 30-day guest pass is yours for the taking. Click here, and you'll have ample time to determine if our service is for you.

My hunch -- and my hope -- is that you'll find that it is. Either way, I look forward to hearing from you on our boards. See you there!

Shannon Zimmerman doesn't own any of the companies mentioned. GlaxoSmithKline is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick, and Vodafone is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool is investors writing for investors, and you can read all about our disclosure policy by clicking righthere.