Here's a frightening news tidbit: Seniors who rely on credit card debt to help them cover expenses have seen their balances rise a whopping 26% over the past four years.

According to a study cited in The Washington Post this past weekend, the average credit card debt "among low- and middle-income Americans 65 and older carrying a balance for more than three months" is now $10,235, up from around $8,100 in 2005.

The Post article goes on to say that debt among near-retirees is way up as well, and quotes a few older folks who have run up significant debts -- mostly due to medical expenses -- with no real way to pay them back.

I have great sympathy for those folks. I don't think we can dismiss this as irresponsibility: If you're on a fixed income, with no real way to increase it, you do what you have to do to make ends meet, especially if your health or that of a loved one is at stake.

But while I'm sympathetic, I don't want to join them.

This is why we invest
For most of us, whatever our shorter-term goals, investing starts at a more fundamental level: with the retirement portfolio. First and foremost, most of us are concerned with building nest eggs to see us through later life without having to worry about how to pay for basics like food and prescriptions.

If you haven't been saving aggressively for retirement lately, that's understandable. The economy stinks, credit lines have been shrinking, and everyone seems to be trimming spending -- including such "spending" as IRA contributions.

But to my mind, IRAs aren't a luxury item. Used wisely, your IRA can be the difference between a comfortable retirement and just getting by.

Why your 401(k) isn't enough
Don't get me wrong; 401(k)s and other workplace savings plans are great. They're designed to keep you saving despite common human weaknesses, and they work. Hopefully you're contributing to your 401(k) -- at least enough to collect all of your employer's match, if not more.

But with a few exceptions, your returns in a 401(k) aren't going to shoot the lights out. The best long-term options in most 401(k)s are big, diversified stock mutual funds that usually look like these:

Fund Name

Recent Top Holdings

Lifetime Average Annual Return (Since Date)

American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX)

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO),
Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM)

13.6% (Dec. 1973)

Fidelity Disciplined Equity (FDEQX)

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM),
Pfizer (NYSE:PFE)

9.4% (Dec. 1988)

Oakmark (OAKMX)

Capital One (NYSE:COF)

11.8% (Aug. 1991)

Source: Respective fund companies. Lifetime returns as of July 31; holdings as of June 30.

As you can see, the long-haul returns on these funds aren't all that far from the roughly 10% you could expect from a basket of stock index funds over the long term. That's not surprising when you look at their holdings -- a bunch of big, mature companies, for the most part. That's what big mutual funds tend to hold.

Ten percent is a great rate of return on your investment, no doubt. But that's not the route to no-worries wealth. For that, you need to invest directly in stocks. And for that, your best friend is an IRA.

Making the most of your IRA
If you set up an IRA -- any kind of IRA -- at a discount broker, you can trade stocks, bonds, mutual funds, even certain kinds of options, if that's of interest to you. You aren't limited to a small menu of choices put together by someone in the benefits department.

I know that you know all that. But think about the power of it: If you can generate market-trouncing returns in your IRA, the effect on your overall retirement portfolio -- on your future -- could be significant.

As individual investors, you and I can take advantage of opportunities to invest in smaller stocks that really aren't available to a multibillion-dollar mutual fund. As many of my fellow Fools have pointed out recently, those are the kinds of stocks that drive outsized, wealth-generating returns.

And for my money, going after those kinds of returns with a tax-advantaged IRA is the best way to avoid turning your retirement into a difficult financial struggle. Think about it.