Before you begin your illustrious investment career, you need to take care of a few things. Using the following checklist, determine whether you have:

  • Eliminated your high-interest credit card debt.
  • Finished your MBA.
  • Stashed away at least $350,000 in your trading account.
  • Quit your job so you can trade stocks full time.
  • Selected a full-service broker who will tell you what to buy and sell.
  • Told your full-service broker not to lose your money out there.
  • Learned about options, futures contracts, and day trading.
  • Learned about candlestick charting, the McClellan Oscillator, and trend lines.
  • Paid $1,200 for expensive software and stock-quoting devices.
  • Smiled and had a good laugh just now.

We hope that you checked the first and last entry and left the remaining ones blank. We're just kidding about the others, which we consider to be wholly unnecessary (if not harmful).

Unfortunately, many people don't consider investing in stocks and mutual funds because they figure they'll need a lot of money, a lot of expensive information, and a lot of graduate-level training. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Here's what should be on your real "to do" list:

  • Pay off your short-term, high-interest debt (read: credit cards). Yeah, we were serious about that one. Do not pass "Go" until you've paid those suckers down. We'll happily show you how.

  • Set a few financial goals, like 1) Get rich, 2) Achieve financial independence, or 3) Treat my canine to a lavish lifestyle. All are admirable, but the more specific your goals, the likelier you are to find the discipline required to achieve them. Go ahead and think big, even if you have to start small.

  • Devote a sum of money on a regular basis to add to your investments. You must decide -- based on your age, income, financial responsibilities, and lifestyle -- whether it will be $50, $500, $5,000, or $50,000. Some brokers and mutual fund companies require a minimum initial deposit of $2,000. Others require $500. And some require no minimum, or accept smaller initial deposits to open an IRA. Your first step is to figure out how much dough you plan to start with.

  • Find help from a reliable source if you need it. No matter how little money you have, someone somewhere is happy to help you manage it. But that's not always such a good thing, particularly when it comes to back-alley financial advice. Here is a list of red flags to watch out for. Still, good help isn't impossible to get. Remember, whenever you can test-drive advice for free, do so. We encourage that kind of behavior around here, as you'll see by the number of times the word "free" appears on that stock ideas page I just linked to.

  • Make sure you don't overpay to invest. Check out and compare how much different brokers will charge in commissions and fees. For a quick comparison of four major brokerages, check out this aptly titled Broker Comparison Table, where you can see how some of our sponsors stack up. For extra credit, visit other brokerage sites to see what they bring to the table. Of course, you'll want to gather information about trading commissions, but don't forget to also compare account maintenance fees, IRA custodial fees, and other costs.

  • Revel publicly. You're now "in the know." Memorize a few key lines to drop at the next office cocktail party, like "I'm in the market for the long haul. Still, I couldn't help but click over to my brokerage account twice today." Or "Yeah, I was going to put a stop-loss on that company, but I decided to take a pass."

Check, check, check, check, check, and check again. Now you're ready to start your illustrious investing career.

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