Starting a new job is a big deal. There's so much to learn, so much potential and opportunity ... and so much paperwork.

As you dig through the direct-deposit forms and new-hire guides, at some point you'll get to the investment-options brochure for your new employer's 401(k) plan. In some cases, that brochure brings welcome news -- a generous company match, immediate eligibility, and a solid menu of familiar, high-quality, low-cost mutual funds. Many times, though, the news is more of a mixed bag. Perhaps there are only eight or 10 investment options, or perhaps they're all from a fund family you don't know well ... or maybe there are 80 funds to choose from and you don't know where to start. Frustration starts to set in, and you put the brochure aside to deal with later -- or not at all.

Pick it back up, Fool! You want to get into that plan as soon as you can so that you can get back to saving for retirement -- and collect your new employer's match. While 401(k) plans vary too much to give you super-detailed advice, here's a roadmap to help you navigate the rocks and shoals of your new plan. Read on!

Heading out to sea
All 401(k) plans are required to have a diversified set of investment options, enough to allow participants with a range of different needs and risk tolerances to select suitable, prudent investments. Most plans have at least a dozen options, though there are plans with only seven or eight, and other plans with more than 100. And generally, most of those options are mutual funds, though your plan may also offer a company stock fund or "commingled pools," which are private funds that are somewhat similar to mutual funds but may offer unique objectives or lower fees. You should be able to find something decent on the new menu, even if it's not the investment of your dreams.

Checking the charts
Even in plans with a huge list of options, it's usually pretty simple to narrow things down. As you page through the investment-options section of your new employer's glossy 401(k) plan brochure, here are some things to be thinking about.

  • Do you have a self-directed brokerage option? These options aren't as common as they used to be, but if your plan has one, you're in luck -- your investment menu will be very large.

  • Are any options not mutual funds? Company stock funds and special "pools" require extra scrutiny. Read carefully (and if in doubt, ask questions on the Fool's retirement discussion boards), and make sure you understand what you're buying before you invest.

  • Are there any index funds? Mark those for serious consideration.

  • Are there lifecycle funds, such as the Fidelity Freedom or Vanguard Target Retirement funds? They can be a good choice in a plan with limited options, but they have their own pluses and minuses.

  • What are your international options? It's a big world, Fool. More than half of the world's stocks come from beyond America's borders. Having some international exposure can give your portfolio added strength during times when the domestic markets are lagging.

Harbor in sight
Once you've got a better understanding of the options available, it's time to start thinking about how your investment in the plan will fit in with your overall retirement investment strategy. Some key considerations:

  • Do you have retirement investments elsewhere, in IRAs or old employers' 401(k) plans? If so, then your new plan is just one part of a larger portfolio. It's perfectly reasonable to stick with just one or two investment options in the new plan if those are the options that best complement your existing investments. Keep your current portfolio holdings in mind as you evaluate your new options.

  • If you're more than six or seven years away from retirement, you should put most, if not all, of your retirement portfolio in stocks, to take full advantage of the stock market's long-term wealth-building power. As you zero in on promising options in your plan, stay focused on stock funds.

  • Don't overdo it on company stock. Even if you work for companies with great prospects, such as General Electric (NYSE:GE), BP (NYSE:BP), or Motley Fool CAPS favorites Teledyne Technologies (NYSE:TDY) and Carter's (NYSE:CRI), remember that your personal finances are already heavily exposed to the company's ups and downs -- the company pays your salary, after all. Don't put too many more eggs in that basket, even if it seems like a promising one.

Last but not least, find out how much you have to contribute to collect 100% of your company's match, and start contributing at least that much as soon as you're eligible. The match is essentially free money -- don't let it drift away.

Investing the right way is essential for the success of your retirement plan. For advice on how to put together the best retirement portfolio for you, take a 30-day free trial of the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. You'll find simple directions that will set you on your way to a successful retirement.

Fool contributor John Rosevear does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.