Leona Helmsley gave the papers plenty to write about.

There was her conviction for tax evasion in 1989 and her subsequent stint in prison. And there was the statement famously attributed to her, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." (No matter how true the stories of her mean-ness are, it's also a fact that she was generous, in her own way. She and her husband left many millions to charity -- more than $100 million, by some estimates. Per her will, more than $4 billion, and as much as $8 billion, will go to her charitable trust.)

Even after her death in August, the hotel magnate dubbed "The Queen of Mean" still made headlines. The biggest post-mortem story was this: She left $12 million to her dog, Trouble.

Retirement lessons
What can this story teach us? Well, several things. Consider how you could amass $12 million by the time you retire. It won't be easy. Here's one way (of many) to do it: You'll have to start around age 21, sock away $5,000 per year, and earn an annual average of 14% on it. By the time you hit age 65, you should have more than $12 million as your nest egg.

I've learned in the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service that in order to make your nest egg last, you should conservatively plan to withdraw about 4% of it per year in retirement. So, 4% of $12 million is $480,000. Can you squeak by on that? I thought so.

Of course, if you're already a few years beyond age 21, all is not lost. You can always start later, and invest more. You may end up with less than $12 million, but even a $2 million nest egg will yield a solid $80,000 to live off in the first year.

Details matter
But there's one little wrinkle in my example: that 14% average annual growth rate. It's not such an easy thing to find. The overall stock market has averaged about 10% over the long run, so a simple index fund isn't likely to get you to Trouble's level very quickly. Some mutual funds might do it, however, and some stocks could, too. Consider the following average annual growth rates over the past 20 years and you'll see how differently various big-name companies have performed over time:

  • Xerox (NYSE:XRX): 5%
  • Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW): 8%
  • DuPont (NYSE:DD): 9%
  • FedEx (NYSE:FDX): 12%
  • 3M (NYSE:MMM): 12%
  • McDonald's (NYSE:MCD): 14%
  • Nike (NYSE:NKE): 25%

Your advantages
While you might envy Trouble her cushy life, rest assured that she has reason to envy you, too. Maltese dogs have an expected life span of 12 to 14 years. We humans tend to fare much better than that. Heck, even if you're arriving late to the investment party, odds are you still have more than Trouble's entire lifespan ahead of you.

You also have some helpful tools at your disposal. Consider the Roth IRA, for example. With it, you can build great wealth over time, ultimately withdrawing your money in retirement ... tax-free! Then there's that 401(k) (or similar plan) available to you at work. Take advantage of it, and it will help you build a nest egg without your feeling much of a pinch; the money will be invested before you ever see it.

And then there's your brain. It's probably much bigger than Trouble's, and it can help you save and invest effectively -- if you don't let it work against you.

Great advice
I also encourage you to take advantage of a free 30-day trial of our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. It's prepared by Robert Brokamp, a smart and witty guy who distills what you really need to know into a manageable volume each month. A free trial will give you full access to all past issues, allowing you to gather valuable tips and even read how some folks have retired early and well. Robert regularly offers recommendations of promising stocks and mutual funds, too.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of McDonald's and 3M. Dow Chemical is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. FedEx is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.