The folks at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) have prepared a quiz for Americans to help us determine whether we're in financial hot water. Below are a few of the conditions they listed -- see how many apply to you:

  • I normally pay only the minimum amount due on my credit card bills.
  • I sometimes hide purchases from my spouse.
  • Most of my credit cards are near the limit, so I've begun applying for new lines of credit.
  • I have taken money from my retirement account to satisfy debt obligations.
  • If I lost my job, it would mean an immediate financial crisis in my life.

How did you do? If any of these apply to you, you may be in trouble with debt. And if that's the case, know that you need to do something about that debt before you can do anything else to put yourself on a sound footing financially.

Fortunately, there's hope
Believe it or not, you can dig yourself out from under mountains of debt. And I mean mountains. On our discussion boards, I've read of people who have paid off $100,000 or more in debt.

Even if you're not in debt, you still may not be free and clear (depressing, I know). See if any of these statements apply to you:

  • I don't contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k) account.
  • I don't know how much money I'll need when I retire.
  • I'm not sure how to divide my assets among stocks, bonds, and cash.

If you're not in debt but any of these statements are true for you, then you can do more to ensure a happy and secure financial future.

How to get better
Two of those three statements will lead to fairly complicated and individual answers. But let's get the easy one out of the way now. No matter what, you should be participating in your company's 401(k) plan and taking advantage of any free money your employer is willing to give you in the form of matching contributions. You can't get that unless you participate, so if you're among the one in four employees with access to a 401(k) who is not participating, fill out the paperwork today ... seriously ... right now.

In addition to the money you contribute to your 401(k) retirement plan, you should aim to open and contribute the maximum to your Roth IRA. This is money that the government allows you to invest tax free, so you'd be silly not to participate.

The current contribution limit is $5,000 per year, which amounts to a little less than $14 per day. If you can't get there, at least contribute as much as you can. At the end of 25 years, even $1,000 annual contributions, earning the market's historical average return, will turn into a $100,000 fortune.

How to get better returns
You can roughly match the market's return (no guarantee that it will be the 10% or so historical return) by investing in a simple broad-market index fund, such as Vanguard 500 (VFINX), that will instantly make you a part-owner of companies such as H&R Block (NYSE: HRB), Alcoa (NYSE: AA), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), and Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL).

You might even do better by picking stronger investment vehicles, such as the Meridian Value (MVALX) fund, which has a 10-year average annual return of more than 13%, an average expense ratio, no load, a low minimum, and top holdings that recently included Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD) and Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS), or by allocating your cash across stocks, bonds, commodities, and real estate in a way that maximizes your returns and minimizes your volatility.

It's to that last point where our Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement service seeks to help beginners devise the savings, investing, and asset-allocation game plans that will work best for them. If you're interested in any advice our retirement expert Robert Brokamp might have for you, click here to join Rule Your Retirement free for 30 days. You'll have access to all of our model portfolios, how-to guides, and planning tools.

Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of the Vanguard 500 Index but no other securities mentioned in this article. Anheuser-Busch is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Electronic Arts is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.