What are you thinking?

You're sticking money in the stock market when you could be spending it. You actually allow your employer to take money out of your paycheck and put it in a 401(k). Why would you put hard-earned money into something so absurdly named?

We're talking thousands of dollars here. Do you know what you could buy with that money? Why invest in Disney (NYSE:DIS) when fewer than a hundred shares could get you an awesome trip to the Magic Kingdom? Have you ever thought about how much stuff you could buy on Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) if you contributed to its revenue instead of your IRA? And forget about investing in Taser (NASDAQ:TASR) -- you could actually own one of those Shaped Pulse Generators.

Yet there you go -- buying shares of companies instead of their products.

So why do you invest? I asked that question of my fellow Fool writers. One said, "To get rich." Another answered, "For total financial independence. Well, that and because I'm competitive and am getting too old for contact sports." A third replied, "It is a system that richly rewards those who take the time to appreciate the potential of research, insight, and perseverance."

But my favorite answer was simply, "To increase my family's health and happiness." I suspect the heart of investing comes down to this for most of us. We're not greedy. We're not money-grubbing. We just want a better life for ourselves and our family -- and maybe for some other people, too.

The real bottom line
The Motley Fool has always been about more than money. We all want a big bank account and a fat portfolio, but those are only the means to more important ends. Those ends are different for everyone. For you, it might be your dream home, a college education for your kids, the world's largest collection of airsickness bags, or endowing the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum. As editor of the Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, I've been helping people accomplish a major goal for most investors: financial independence -- getting to a point at which your portfolio, not your boss, provides the paycheck.

You may love your Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) stock, but you can't live in it, drive it, or eat it. (It might make a hat, or a broach, or a pterodactyl.) I do know a guy who lives in a house made of Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) -- that is, he made enough in the stock in the 1990s that he was able to pay for a beautiful home. (Of course, this was the 1990s.)

And that's the point: Eventually, you'll have to part with portions of your portfolio to realize the goal that got you investing in the first place. That will be a great day. But it's also something to keep in your mental forefront today. Keeping that goal in mind -- picturing that retirement on the beach, contemplating the trips to European castles, imagining your daughter getting her diploma, fantasizing about a wing named after you in the Museum of Bad Art -- keeps you investing. It reminds you why you're saving when you could be spending.

And it reminds you of all the good money can do.

This is the eighth year of Foolanthropy -- that is, Foolish philanthropy. With the help of our online community, we choose five organizations every year that aren't just charities -- they create sustainable solutions while keeping administrative expenses low and their finances transparent. Here are this year's organizations:

  • Canine Companions for Independence: Enhancing the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.

  • First Book: Giving children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books.

  • Habitat for Humanity International: Seeking to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness and making decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.

  • Heifer Project International: Empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty in a sustainable way with gifts of farm animals and training.

  • Spirit of America: Extending the goodwill of the American people to assist those advancing freedom and peace abroad.

I'd like to mention another organization that isn't on our official list: The Greensboro Dreamers, a program for 54 economically disadvantaged students in rural Georgia that emphasizes self-confidence, academics, character, life skills, accountability, and community service. The children are also taken on numerous field trips so they can travel beyond Greensboro to experience, dream about, and then pursue a wide variety of careers and interests. Every Dreamer who graduates from high school is assured a free college education. (You can learn more about the Dreamers from this 60 Minutesfeature.)

Why you invest
For these reasons, folks, you invest. You have goals, and you won't realize them unless you save now. Yes, many of the best things in life are free. But many lives, yours and others', can be enhanced by accumulated and well-directed resources. As Fool co-founder and Foolanthropy co-chair David Gardner wrote, "At Fool HQ for 12 years now, we have written and broadcasted that every dollar you spend is an investment. That dollar is precious. Invested properly, it will compound at an unbelievable rate -- and this is just as true for our charitable investments."

Visit our Foolanthropy home page for more information on how you can make some investments with especially high returns.

Robert Brokamp is the editor of Rule Your Retirement . Give it a 30-day, free test-drive -- or give it as a Christmas gift. Nothing says, "I love you" like financial independence.