Later in this article, I'll share a simple investing strategy that will work for nearly everyone. By the time you get there, though, you'll realize that figuring out how to invest your money is the least of your worries -- but with a little effort, you can do everything you need to build yourself the perfect financial life.

Climbing the pyramid
The new year has just begun, and so people across Fooldom are setting out to improve their finances. Plenty of us have talked about great stocks and other investments that will make you money in 2011 and beyond, in the hopes of helping you along the road to becoming a top-notch investor.

But in this month's brand-new issue of the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which will be released today at 4 p.m. ET, Fool retirement expert and financial planner Robert Brokamp takes a step back from the challenges of investing to take a broader view of personal finance. As Robert sees it, picking investments is a bit like eating dessert -- it's a fun thing to do, but if it's the only thing you do, you're gonna run into some other problems down the road.

That's why Robert teamed up with a pair of Certified Financial Planners from the Garrett Planning Network to develop what he calls the Foolish Financial Pyramid. Built with a similar premise as the government's Food Pyramid, this device helps list out and prioritize the various things you need to do to get your finances in shape.

4 steps to a secure financial future
As important as investing is to reaching your financial goals, it's important to address some key aspects of your financial plan first. The worst thing that can happen is to have the perfect portfolio set up, but then have to liquidate it because you didn't adequately protect yourself against some foreseeable financial disaster. To avoid having to undo great investments, following these steps in order should keep you on the straight and narrow:

  • The first thing to do is build the right foundation for your finances. Get out of debt, make sure you spend less than you earn, and get the life insurance protection you need if your family depends on your income.
  • Next, build up a cash fund to take care of financial emergencies, get property insurance for your belongings, and consider buying a home or making other long-term housing arrangements.
  • Third, invest in yourself by advancing your career, thereby increasing your income. Also focus on your health and well-being while doing estate planning to make sure your loved ones are taken care of if something happens to you.
  • Once you have the base of your pyramid firmed up, then it makes sense to start looking to the future, with smart investments using tax-favored retirement accounts divided according to a reasonable asset allocation strategy.

Following those four steps will ensure not only that you get off on the right foot but also that you'll protect your assets as they grow. And best of all, Robert gives you plenty of details on each of these steps in this month's issue of Rule Your Retirement.

So what about the investing?
Mastering the art of investing is a lifelong pursuit, but it doesn't take rocket science to get started.

Start with two simple ideas. First, build a core portfolio with just four exchange-traded funds: SPDR Trust (NYSE: SPY), iShares MSCI EAFE (NYSE: EFA), Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock (NYSE: VWO), and iShares Aggregate Bond (NYSE: AGG). They give you cheap, broad access to U.S. stocks, developed foreign markets, emerging markets, and bonds, respectively. How much of each you buy depends on your age and how long you have to go before retirement, but in general, the younger you are, the more aggressively you should invest in stocks.

Outside your core portfolio, invest in themes you believe in. One theme I like is combining great value with strong dividends. So right now, some of the best-known stocks with cheap valuations and good dividend yields are Chevron (NYSE: CVX), Exelon (NYSE: EXC), and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC). Each of those has both a margin of safety and a history of making steady payouts to shareholders.

But if you like another theme better, go with it. And as your investing prowess increases, you can dedicate more of your portfolio toward your own ideas, maintaining your core only as a safety valve in case your favorite theme turns out to be wrong.

Resolve to get smart
Making a resolution to improve your finances is a great way to start 2011, and Rule Your Retirement is ready to help you throughout the year. If you haven't seen what the service has to offer, take this opportunity to try it out free for 30 days. You'll get no-holds-barred access to the newest issue as well as five years' worth of archives, online resources, and much more.

Here's to building the perfect financial life!

Rule Your Retirement also issued a special report recently on what you can do to salvage your retirement during tough times. To read it with absolutely no obligation, click here.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is a money perfectionist. He owns shares of iShares MSCI EAFE and Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock. Exelon and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Chevron is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Exelon and buying calls on Intel. The Fool owns shares of Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock ETF. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy is perfect for you.