"You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."
-- Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront

[I wrote my first draft of this article about six months ago. Since then, I've added some new insights, which I've inserted in brackets.]

I'm just beginning, and I already fear that this may be one of the most painful articles I'll ever write. It's about how much money I could have made if I hadn't been such a dunderhead.

Permit me to explain. You see, as a financial writer, I'm always running across mentions of companies and stocks that look like they might make great investments. I can't always stop to research them and invest, so I jot them down as I compile lists for further research and action. Less than a year ago, I finally consolidated all the sticky notes and envelope scraps into one list.

The beginning
Along with the 17 company names, I included the stock tickers and the then-current stock price for future reference. Well, I'm in the future now, looking at that list and kicking myself. Here are some of companies on that list with the stock prices then and now; this will help you see why I'm reaching for a hankie. [I just added a third set of numbers, reflecting even more recent prices. The numbers now represent prices as of September 2005, January 2006, and July 2006.]

Stock 9/05 Price 1/06 Price 7/06 Price
Citigroup $45 $49 $48
McDonald's $32 $35 $33
Quality Systems (NASDAQ:QSII) $33* $42* $33
General Electric $34 $35 $32
Google $296 $472 $403
Whole Foods
$65* $76* $58
Cemex (NYSE:CX) $48 $64 $55
Costco $46 $51 $53
$37 $38 $37
Valero $51* $57 $65
Kraft Foods $30 $28 $30
City Holding
$36 $36 $36
Hasbro $19 $21 $18
Mattel $15 $15 $16
International Game Technology
$28 $31 $36
iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (AMEX:EEM) $78 $96 $89

Do you hear that thunking sound? That's my head, banging against my desk.

Sure, a few of the stocks haven't raced ahead. And yes, one of them -- Kraft Foods -- dropped a bit in value. But the vast majority of these securities have done quite well -- without taking me along for the ride. That's my fault, of course. My procrastination and inaction kept me on the sidelines, instead of sharing in the wealth.

The average gain for these stocks (over just a short period of several months, remember) is 14%. The approximate gain of the S&P 500 during the same period? Roughly 6%.

Had I invested in these holdings, I'd have done quite well. A $10,000 investment would have turned into about $11,380.

[Of course, the market has swooned in the past, several taking many stock prices with it.]

Lessons to learn
But wait -- this situation and its lessons may not be what you expect them to be. Here are a few:

  • Even in an economy and stock market that isn't firing on all cylinders, it's very possible to find stocks that will outperform handily.
  • Good ideas are all over the place. I ran across the emerging markets ETF on our discussion boards. I read about Quality Systems and Whole Foods in our Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter. (You can try it for free and see all its recommendations.) The Fool's free daily articles are another good source of ideas -- that's where I ran across Cemex and International Game Technology.
  • It's important to note that over such a short time period, the returns aren't all that meaningful. Yes, I lost out on some gains. But stock prices can fluctuate wildly over the short term. Some of these solid holdings may dip in value over coming months [aha! many did], offering cheaper entry points. [Whole Foods is cheaper now than when I first added it to my list.] So though I may lament having missed some prices, there are others to take advantage of. Remember, whatever you or I buy today may fluctuate considerably for years, and all that really matters are the prices at which we bought and sold -- two prices, on two days.
  • Here's another reason I shouldn't kick myself for not having jumped in: Since I hadn't made the time to do my research and due diligence on the investments, I had no business investing in them. I've made mistakes like that before, and paid for them. Sure, some of these firms advanced significantly without me, but perhaps they were overvalued even when I first considered them. Perhaps they had gotten ahead of themselves and were due to fall anytime. I'm not saying that's the case, though. I'm saying I don't know.

A better option
Another consideration is that I couldn't have, and shouldn't have, invested in all of them, anyway. For starters, I don't have enough money to spread out over 17 holdings in any meaningful way. And even if I did, that would be adding 17 new holdings to the holdings I already have. I don't have time to keep up with all these investments.

If I'd cherry-picked from the list, I might have ended up with stocks that just rose a little or a group that soared. So that average return of 14% is again not too relevant.

So what should a busy prospective investor do when she has too many stock candidates and not enough time to do research? Well, for me these days, the main answer has been: Mutual funds!

Mutual funds are perfect for busy people who want to tap the growth engine that is our stock market. Most people would be well-served by simply investing in index funds. But if you want to aim even higher, you can seek out those few excellent funds with solid long-term track records and attractive prospects, ones with managers whose philosophies you respect. They are out there, though they're in the minority. Shannon Zimmerman and our Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter can help you find the winners. His picks' total average return is 14% vs. 5% for benchmark indexes. Last time I checked, more than half of his 40 picks were up more than 15%, and 16 were up more than 20%, which is darn impressive for mutual funds. Try a free trial and check it out for yourself.

So here's to a happier portfolio! And stop banging your head against your desk.

Costco, Whole Foods, and Hasbro are Stock Advisor recommendations. Kraft Foods is an Income Investor pick. Mattel is an Inside Value pick. Whatever your investing style, the Fool has a newsletter for you.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Costco. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.