For many people, retirement is the most pressing financial issue. Pensions are disappearing, health-care costs are soaring, politicians keep talking about changing or shrinking Social Security benefits, inflation is marching on. This should all sound very familiar.

It's hard to believe, but millions of Americans have taken few or no steps toward securing a comfortable retirement. Many have not opened IRA accounts, and many don't participate in their employers' 401(k) plans. You're probably not in that group, though -- especially if you hang out at The Motley Fool.

Still, you probably could make your retirement richer by changing a few of your ways.

Let's avoid the latte
This is where we financial writers will often inject the "latte example," showing you how much money you could save by skipping those daily coffee splurges. Let's do something else instead, though -- use smoking as an example. Whether it's a coffee habit or a smoking habit or something else, we can all do better.

Here's the math. Imagine that you're 35 years old, you smoke one pack of cigarettes a day, and each pack costs you, on average, about $5. Multiply $5 by 365 days, and you're looking at an annual cost of $1,825. If you took this $1,825 and invested it in the stock market, earning the historical average return of 10% per year, in 30 years you'd have $31,845. If you invested $1,825 in the market each year for 30 years, you'd end up with more than $300,000! All that from quitting smoking.

And you might not even have to quit entirely. If you smoke two packs a day and cut down to one pack, you'll save the same amount. If you cut out three $5 packs per day, you'll end up with nearly a million dollars for retirement (and much better odds of making it to retirement, as well).

Why $300,000 matters
As Robert Brokamp has suggested in our Rule Your Retirement newsletter, that $300,000 can make a huge difference in your life. He explained that to make your nest egg last, you should conservatively plan to withdraw about 4% of it per year in retirement to live on.

So, if you want to live off of $50,000 per year, you'll want to have $1.25 million socked away. Are you anywhere close to that? If not, then $300,000 might look a lot more important -- it's almost a quarter of what you need!

A personal example
I don't smoke, though, so someone could reasonably argue that it's easy for me to talk about quitting smoking. I do, however, buy lots of books (as well as CDs and movies) online. Even though I usually pay half-price or less, I still buy them, when I could (with a little more effort) find many at a local library.

If I spend $35 per week on these items, financially it's just like smoking one pack a day. By cutting out (or cutting back) this spending, I might net $300,000 for myself -- which is a considerable sum for me.

Caveats
Of course, just plunking that money into the stock market won't necessarily net you 10% per year -- that's just the historical average. To increase your odds of getting there, you need to be careful about selecting stocks. Just to prove that there are plenty of familiar names that deliver strong results over time, here are a few past performers:

Company

10-yr. avg.

20-yr. avg.

Altria Group (NYSE:MO)

11.9%

14.9%

Deere (NYSE:DE)

10.6%

12.6%

Hess (NYSE:HES)

12.9%

10.2%

Ross Stores (NASDAQ:ROST)

12.5%

16.0%

Valero Energy (NYSE:VLO)

16.2%

17.8%

Ford Motor (NYSE:F)

(14.0%)

0.9%

Fannie Mae (NYSE:FNM)

(34.5%)

(7.1%)

Oops! This table shows, more than anything else, that not all familiar companies (like Ford) will perform well, and that some unfamiliar companies may perform very well. It's critical to choose carefully.

Learn more
We can help you zero in on healthy, growing investments as you line up a secure retirement for yourself via our Rule Your Retirement newsletter. A 30-day free trial will let you peek at all the past issues, which feature retirement success stories and a wide range of other useful articles on planning for retirement and making smart investments.

Try a free trial today -- you have nothing to lose, and plenty to gain.

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Here's to a happier portfolio!

This article was originally published on June 29, 2006. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who owns shares of Altria Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.