It's not often that a simple, one-time effort requiring only a few minutes of work can significantly change the course of your life for the better. So when those opportunities are put in front of you, you should bite.

The difference between long-run satisfaction and despair could be as easy as a one-time, 20-minute effort. It requires little more from you than filling out a form.

Do it, already!
The simplicity of the act doesn't do justice to its impact on your financial future, but here it is: If you haven't yet, take 20 minutes to sign up for your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) plan.

There it is. That's it. Filling out the paperwork for a 401(k) or 403(b) should take less time than watching a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond, yet only 76% of eligible employees are actively enrolled, according to Deloitte Consulting. That's discouraging, considering that 401(k)s or 403(b)s are quickly becoming the only employer-sponsored retirement option available to many folks these days.

Yet nearly one in four of us is not signed up!

The laundry list
For the 24% of you out there, staying on the sidelines is a long-run detriment to your financial health. Just consider all the benefits you receive by signing up:

  • You lower your current taxable income by the amount of money you contribute.
  • You get tax-deferred growth between now and retirement.
  • If your employer offers it, you get free money in the form of a matching contribution.
  • You start building the retirement nest egg you'd otherwise never earn.

Over time, you probably won't even miss the money you've contributed -- it'll come straight from your paycheck, pretax, without ever touching your bank account. Even so, all of that cash -- from you, Uncle Sam, and your boss -- will be hard at work for you, getting you ever closer to your retirement.

Even in a meltdown?
Of course, with the market being so jittery recently, you may be wondering whether now is really the smartest time to begin investing in some of the stock funds your retirement plan most likely offers. While the market may be jittery now, you have these items working to your advantage:

  • If you're only starting now, you have decades to go until you've got a big enough nest egg to retire. Over time frames measured in decades, overall stock market performance tends to smooth out the volatility we feel on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
  • In your work retirement plan, you won't be investing all your cash at once. Instead, you'll be investing every payday. A dollar-cost averaging strategy like that keeps you from going "all in" at a high point in the market and lets you buy more when stocks are cheap.
  • When it topped out on Oct. 9, 2007, the S&P 500 closed at 1,565.15. Yesterday, the same index closed at 940.51. It's an obvious point, but with a 40% fall from the S&P 500's peak, every dollar you invest now buys more stock than it would have last year. If you're a long-term investor, that's a nice consolation.

Decades make the difference
With this current meltdown in full force, it's extremely important to keep the long term in mind when deciding to invest. In spite of this being yet another in a string of terrible market-churning events over the past two decades, stocks of solid companies like these have provided strong long-run total returns:



Verizon (NYSE:VZ)






Disney (NYSE:DIS)




Kroger (NYSE:KR)


Legg Mason (NYSE:LM)


Returns adjusted for splits and dividends, from Yahoo! Finance.

Although past performance is never a guarantee of future results, I can guarantee that you have no chance of getting returns like these by spending -- rather than investing -- your cash.

Why haven't you started yet?
When your future self looks back on your life, the 20 minutes you spent signing up to participate in your company's 401(k) or 403(b) just might be the most valuable 20 minutes of your financial life. Once you're enrolled and investing intelligently, getting to your retirement is largely a matter of time.

At Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement, we know how difficult it is to find the time to plan for your retirement, especially if it's still decades away. That's why every issue is chock-full of ways to make the most of the time -- and money -- you are able to invest for your future. If you're ready to take the first step toward securing your long-term financial future amid today's turmoil, I recommend Rule Your Retirement as a great place to start. You can try the service free for 30 days by clicking here.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not directly own shares of any company mentioned in this article, but his wife owned shares of Kroger. 3M and Legg Mason are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. FedEx and Disney are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of Legg Mason. If you're into that kind of thing, the Fool's disclosure policy is worth the time it'll take you to read.