Source: Dawn Ellner via Flickr.

A happy retirement has long been a part of the American dream, with workers hoping to reap the benefits of a long and prosperous career by spending time doing the things they actually want to do. Yet all too often, financial challenges keep retirees from enjoying the quality of life they always wanted after they quit work. Fortunately, if you take a few simple steps toward strengthening your finances, you can make it a lot more likely that you'll have the happy retirement you deserve. Let's take a look at five money tips everyone can follow to retire richer and more financially secure.

1. Start investing as early as you can
The biggest asset every young investor has is time. It takes foresight to start saving for goals that are decades away, but getting time on your side makes the challenge a lot easier to face. For example, if you give yourself 30 years to save instead of 20, then investing regular amounts each month and earning a 10% annual return will leave you with three times the savings you'd have if you waited an extra decade.

Of course, many young workers argue that they don't make enough to save. But the flip side of the example above is that if you start planning your retirement in your 30s instead of your 40s, you'll be able to save two-thirds less every month and still end up in exactly the same place. Even when savings are hard to come by, most people can come up with something to put away toward their long-term financial goals.

2. Don't settle for "safe" investments
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, too many investors stayed on the sidelines, shell-shocked by the stock market meltdown in 2008 and early 2009. In the process, they missed out on some of the best returns in recent memory.

Investing involves risk, and you must learn to have at least some tolerance for that risk in order to be a successful investor. You shouldn't gamble your life savings on a single stock, but you also shouldn't cower in bank CDs and other conservative choices with no prospects of future growth. Without the higher returns that stocks provide, it'll be tough for you to save enough to live a happy retirement.

Source: Keoni Cabral via Flickr.

3. Milk your employer (and the IRS) for everything you can get
Many workers have employers that want them to save more for retirement. By taking advantage of 401(k) plans and other employer-sponsored retirement vehicles, you can get a tax break and collect an employer match or profit-sharing contributions that basically represent free money toward your golden years.

Even if your employer doesn't offer a retirement plan, you can still get some help from the IRS. With traditional and Roth IRAs, you can take advantage of tax laws that provide for tax deferral throughout your working years. With a Roth IRA, you won't even pay tax when you take money out of the account in retirement. But it's up to you to make contributions each year to make the most of this opportunity.

4. Get yourself out of debt before you even think about retirement
One of the biggest problems today's retirees face is having too much debt. About 30% of homeowners over 65 still owe money on their mortgages, and more than one in five 75-year-olds has mortgage debt outstanding. Higher bankruptcy rates for older Americans show that other types of debt are also on the rise.

When you're living on a fixed income, dealing with debt effectively gets a lot tougher. The better solution is to prepare before you retire to get your debts paid down in full. That way, you'll be able to live a happy retirement without the stress and worry of coming up with monthly payments on your outstanding loans.

Source: SSA.

5. Make sure Social Security is working its hardest for you
Most retirees rely on Social Security to provide the bulk of their financial assistance, so it's critical for you to understand what benefits you're entitled to receive from Social Security and what options you have to try to boost those benefits. The simplest way to get bigger monthly checks from Social Security is to wait longer before you retire and start collecting benefits. But even if that's not an option for you, some more sophisticated strategies can help you make the most of the Social Security opportunities you do have.

Which options will make you happiest depend on your personal preferences. For some, taking Social Security early is the best path to a happy retirement, even at the expense of smaller monthly payments for the rest of your life. For others, deferring retirement until they can get larger payments from Social Security is a more sustainable financial solution for the long run. Regardless, knowing what will give you a happy retirement is essential in choosing the right Social Security strategy to get you there.

Everyone wants a happy retirement, but you have to work hard to get it. By following these tips, you'll be in much better shape that most of your peers in ensuring a financially secure and prosperous retirement for the years and decades to come.