Stocks are a lot of work. I should know -- I'm addicted to them. Before I pruned our portfolio to put a down payment on a house, my wife and I held 20 stocks in our taxable accounts -- and I was up to date on every one of them. I read the news, checked the financials, and constantly updated my spreadsheet valuations. (Sadly, I still do.)

It's fun, sure, but not as much fun as it sounds. And if you're not addicted to stocks, a portfolio like that can be an utter disaster.

Our individual retirement accounts (IRAs), on the other hand, are a dream. We have long timelines, and I've constructed them so that I don't have to worry about day-to-day fluctuations. I know what's in them, and I know they'll be just fine.

Sound like a good deal? Then I'll let you in on my little secret ...

Mutual funds
When building our IRAs, I was most worried about smart asset allocation. I wanted a mix that would meet our needs and not jump the shark. (You know, a portfolio that's more Anne Bancroft than Anna Nicole Smith.)

Where'd I start? I started with the entire stock market: Vanguard Total Stock Market (AMEX:VTI). This exchange-traded fund (ETF) tracks the U.S. Broad Market Index and invests in more than 1,300 stocks for the low, low cost of 0.07% per year. The top holdings are the stalwarts you'd expect: Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), AT&T (NYSE:T), and Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO), to name three. And because Total Stock Market is an index tracker, the beauty of this low-cost holding is that it will change with the index. In other words, it can never jump the shark.

But wait -- there's more
From there, I decided to gain some extra international exposure. While it's true that many of the stocks in the U.S. Broad Market Index operate internationally, it's also true that many of tomorrow's global stalwarts are overseas firms that most investors have not even heard of yet. And with GDP growth in China and India exceeding that of the United States, the odds are that many of these companies will come from countries outside my realm of expertise. So my low-cost, long-term solution was Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock ETF (AMEX:VWO). With an expense ratio of just 0.30%, this ETF tracks the performance of the Select Emerging Markets Index. The top holdings include Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and Teva Pharmaceuticals. The ETF was up nearly 30% in 2006. Not bad for a low-cost, low-stress option.

Because smaller companies can really punch up a portfolio with their long-term gains, I added some extra mid- and small-cap exposure. Historically, the S&P MidCap 400 is a difficult index to beat, so I bought the whole enchilada through the iShares S&P MidCap 400 ETF. The average company in the index has a market cap of just $3.4 billion, and top holdings include Microchip Technology and CarMax (NYSE:KMX).

Finally, I added two actively managed funds -- one small-cap and one value-oriented -- that should complement my own investing style. By filling out our asset-allocation plan, I'm confident that my wife and I will be OK when it comes time to retire. Plus, the best part about holding funds like these is that they self-correct and evolve with the world around them. The most work I'll have to do is rebalance annually.

The Foolish bottom line
Today, our IRAs are ahead of the broader market, and I've barely had to check in on them.

So where does a stock guy like me get all of these fund tips and asset-allocation hints? From Fool fund guru Shannon Zimmerman, of course. He's constructed three model portfolios -- for aggressive, moderate, and conservative types -- in his Motley Fool Champion Funds service that are chock-full of premium ideas. And they're beating their benchmarks to boot!

To get started building your own custom autopilot portfolio, click here to join Champion Funds free for 30 days. Shannon's fund picks are ahead of their benchmarks by more than 10 percentage points, and the community of investors is more than happy to help you identify picks that are tailor-made for you. Whether it tracks an index or has a battle-tested active manager at the controls, an autopilot portfolio is a great way to reap the market's gains without subjecting yourself to the daily ups and downs that have me prematurely losing my hair.

This article was originally published as "The Autopilot Portfolio" on Jan. 3, 2006. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson owns shares of Vanguard Total Stock Market, Vanguard Emerging Markets, and iShares MidCap 400. CarMax is an Inside Value pick. No Fool is too cool for disclosure.