Under most circumstances, the phrase "We're from the federal government, and we're here to help" is a punch line. However, when it comes to retirement savings, truer words, as they say, ne'er were spoken.

Life begins at ... 50
That's because, in addition to providing tax-favored savings via IRAs, the feds have authorized folks of a certain, shall we say, vintage to play catch-up with their retirement savings.

For instance, if you'll be 50 at the end of 2006, you can contribute up to $5,000, while the pre-50 set is allowed just $4,000. A 401(k) can be an important part of your race to the finish, too. You'll need to check the details of your company's plan to ensure that you're eligible, but as far as the U.S. government is concerned, folks who are 50 and older are free to kick in up to $20,000 on a tax-favored basis in 2006.

A pretty good deal, no?

Get smart
A pretty good deal, yes -- provided you take advantage of it to begin with and, of course, that you invest the moola intelligently. With 401(k)s, you'll generally be limited to the lineup of mutual funds that your company provides, but with IRAs, you'll have boatloads of room to maneuver.

Choosing investments for that IRA, of course, is tricky business, and you'll want to do so based on your stomach for risk, time horizon, and estimated amount of time you can devote to grooming your portfolio.

If you're of the "buy and forget" persuasion, you may want to consider low-cost index trackers such as iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV), an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that provides no-muss, no-fuss exposure to such household names as Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Citigroup (NYSE:C), and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO).

But if you're more inclined to go after higher returns and don't know where to start, here's an investment idea: Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive (NBSRX), which is a fund that runs with a compact portfolio of roughly 35 names that, at the end of June, included the likes of Altera (NASDAQ:ALTR), Costco (NASDAQ:COST), and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA). With an expense ratio of just 1.01%, this fund costs far less than its typical peer, a feature that makes the market-beating success it's achieved over the years quite a bargain indeed.

Get moving!
Regardless of where you put your retirement cash to work, the important thing is to get going now. And, as outlined above, the good news is that if you're 50 or older and perhaps haven't socked away as much as you suspect you should have, the feds have provided a great way to accelerate your savings.

The Fool, in the meantime, provides a great way to accelerate your learning curve when it comes to all of the ins and outs of prepping for retirement. In fact, you can get a completely free 30-day guest pass to our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service.

Your pass provides access to the newsletter's archives, where you can peruse every column inch of retirement advice that's ever appeared in Rule Your Retirement. The service's members-only discussion boards come gratis, too, which means that you'll have a terrific forum for vetting and soliciting feedback on your own retirement ideas and insights.

Another good deal, no? Then go ahead and get started!

This article was originally published May 1, 2006. It has been updated.

Shannon Zimmerman runs point on the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service and doesn't own any of the companies mentioned. Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive is a Champion Funds recommendation. Costco is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola are Inside Value recommendations. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.