For many, if not most of us, the money we've socked away in our employer-sponsored retirement plan represents the biggest portion of our nest eggs. Trouble is, too few of us take maximum advantage of our plans. And even those who do might not be putting money to work in other investment vehicles that also provide tax-favored earnings growth.

Some folks, however -- perhaps even the coworker stationed in the next cube -- know exactly what it takes to get the job done.

Want the inside scoop? For starters, you should ...

Take the money and run
If your company matches retirement-plan contributions up to a certain level, make sure to kick in at least as much as they'll match.

Even if your firm's plan isn't the greatest in the world, it's hard to beat doubling your money while reducing your taxable income. And, of course, the deal is sweet indeed if you're among those lucky workers whose plan offers a cream-of-the-crop lineup of mutual funds. But what, exactly, constitutes one of those? Good question. Cheap price tags and seasoned management are key, as is market-cap and valuation diversity.

On that front, your plan should feature an "anchor" fund that specializes in high-quality big boys such as JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), IBM (NYSE:IBM), and 3M (NYSE:MMM) -- stalwarts whose price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios currently clock in below their typical industry rival. It should also provide a fund whose managers look down the market's cap range and toward growth-oriented fare such as Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ:AKAM) and Lamar Advertising (NASDAQ:LAMR), stocks with rich P/Es and, not coincidentally, earnings-growth estimates of 20% or more over the next five years. Hansen Natural (NASDAQ:HANS) and Gamestop (NYSE:GME) are similarly racy contenders for such funds.

The bottom line? If your plan keeps a lid on costs and provides vehicles that you can, um, drive across the market's cap range and valuation spectrum, then give your administrator props: He or she has provided a smart way to build a diversified portfolio.

Take it to the limit
Another smart way for retirement-minded workers (i.e., all of us) to proceed is with a Roth IRA. Provided you don't exceed the income limits, you can contribute to a Roth in addition to the moola you plunk down in your 401(k), and savvy investors should do just that. Yes, unlike a traditional IRA, you'll invest after-tax dollars. The tradeoff, though, is that when you pass the 59-and-a-half-year mark, you're free to tap those proceeds -- which grow on a tax-free basis -- without paying Uncle Sam a single cent in taxes.

When it comes to preparing for your financial future, then, a Roth is another deal that's tough to beat.

Stay informed
If you want to retire in style while meeting important near-term goals like buying a house or funding a child's college education, it pays (literally!) to stay up to speed on your options for getting those jobs done. Indeed, even -- or especially -- investing newbies should strive to stay abreast of the strategies that are available, and helping you do just that is one of the reasons the Fool introduced its Motley Fool Green Light service last year.

In the current newsletter issue, for example, my co-Fool Dayana Yochim explains why tax refunds are a ripoff, while I check in with best bets for taxable and tax-favored accounts -- you know, such as your IRA. Click here to snag a free 30-day guest pass. If you find it's not for you, you're free to head for the exits, but I have a hunch you'll stick around: Motley Fool Green Light aims to help you cover all your financial bases.

This article was originally published on Dec. 7, 2006. It has been updated.

Shannon Zimmerman runs point on the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service and co-advises Motley Fool Green Light with his pal Dayana Yochim. He doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned.  J.P. Morgan Chase is an Income Investor recommendation. 3M is an Inside Value selection. Akamai is a Rule Breakers choice. Gamestop is a Stock Advisor pick. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy by clicking right here.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.