Lately, everyone seems to be in a hurry to earn back the money they lost last year as quickly as possible. That has made it a perfect environment for those offering leveraged exchange-traded funds, which promise amplified returns from market movements in either direction.

But if you're looking for the kind of leverage that lets you truly multiply your long-term returns, then those ETFs aren't the way to go. Instead, there's a better strategy involving options that gives you at least a chance of making some serious money if you pick the right stocks.

Why leveraged ETFs didn't work
The reason leveraged ETFs have gotten so much attention lately, from warnings from financial regulators to outright bans at some brokers, is that they don’t work when you hold them over multiple trading sessions. Typically, these ETFs are designed to track indexes on a daily basis

The problem, though, is that they don't track those same indexes for longer periods of time. As a result, sometimes both the bullish and bearish ETFs tied to the same index produce substantial losses for ETF shareholders. Just take a look at some examples:

Sector

1-Year Return of Bull Fund

1-Year Return of Bear Fund

Oil

(63.9%)

(43.4%)

Financial Stocks

(75.7%)

(74.8%)

Real Estate

(82.2%)

(84.1%)

Source: Yahoo! Finance as of Aug. 11.

You'd think that either bulls or bears would've made money. Yet with these ETFs, it didn't matter which way you bet -- if you held onto these funds all year, you lost money.

Know your investment
If you want leverage for a longer period than a single day, then you need to pick an investment that's better suited to that purpose. One way would be to buy stock on margin, but that has its own dangers. There's an alternative using options, though, that's quite a bit safer.

For instance, say you want to use double leverage over a period of several months. One easy method to get that leverage is to buy deep in-the-money call options that cost about half what you'd pay for the company's stock. If you do that, you can buy options on 200 shares with the same money you'd pay for 100 shares outright. That doubles your risk -- and reward.

Here are some examples of how this options strategy can work in real life:

Stock

Stock Price

Option

Option Price

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

18.87

Jan. 2010 $10 call

8.98

Mosaic (NYSE:MOS)

52.48

Jan. 2010 $25 call

27.80

Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT)

47.12

Jan. 2010 $22.50 call

24.80

Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK)

23.69

Jan. 2011 $12.50 call

12.25

Dell (NASDAQ:DELL)

13.81

Feb. 2010 $8 call

6.00

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM)

42.17

Dec. 2009 $20 call

22.30

Target (NYSE:TGT)

42.50

Jan. 2011 $22.50 call

20.83

Source: CBOE. Options price based on bid-ask spreads as of Aug. 12.

For more detail, look at Intel. To buy 100 shares, you'd spend $1,887. Or you could buy call options on 200 shares for $1,796. If you bought the stock and it rose to $25 by mid-October, your shares would be worth $2,500, for a profit of $613. On the other hand, the options would be worth about $15 per share, or $3,000, for a profit of $1,204 -- almost twice the profit from buying the stock, just as you intended.

Of course, if the stock price falls, you'll lose twice as much money. But that's the downside of using leverage.

Moreover, because options let you choose different expiration dates, you get to decide the length of time you want to measure your returns. Unlike leveraged ETFs, you're not stuck with the one-day timeframe. Now, because options have time value, you may have to pay extra for longer-dated options -- but once you do, you never have to worry about the tracking errors that leveraged ETFs face.

Leverage is optional
Options open a number of interesting doors for investors, but not all of them involve any leverage whatsoever. Used wisely, they can be valuable tools to help you enhance your returns to generate extra income and attain better buying and selling prices -- just to name a couple. To learn more about smart ways to use options, check out our free video series -- just enter your email in the box below for access.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger typically avoids leverage, but he's been known to buy an option or two here and there. He owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake Energy, Dell, and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. The Fool's disclosure policy dominates the competition.