I love IRAs. Traditional, Roth, SEP, rollover, all of 'em ... with an IRA, I can invest in nearly anything, get favorable treatment (like reduced fees or lowered minimum investments) from many brokerages and fund firms, and enjoy terrific tax advantages. I have three IRAs myself, and I might add a fourth later this year.

But if you're new to IRAs, or if your only investment experience was selecting investment options from the limited menu offered by your 401(k) -- or worse, buying a dot-com stock in late 1999 -- the investment freedom offered by an IRA can seem daunting. But have no fear, Fool. We're here to help.

While some investors do hold relatively esoteric investments like commercial real estate or hedge funds in their IRAs, the stock market is the sensible place for most of us to invest. Nothing else builds wealth for the average investor like the stock market's inflation protection, capital appreciation, and compounding effect over time.

Getting into the stock market via your IRA is easier than ever. Our IRA Center can help you learn everything you need to know about starting an account and picking investments. Here are three basic approaches to IRA stock investing, ranging from the extremely simple to the somewhat simple. Feel free to mix and match them as your investing skills and confidence increase.

Buy index funds
Low-cost mutual funds that seek to match the performance of an index are extremely popular IRA choices, for good reason. Holding an index fund pretty much guarantees that you won't underperform the market over time, putting you ahead of the vast majority of investors in actively managed stock funds. If I had to pick one investment that I couldn't touch for twenty years, index funds would be on my short list of choices. They're as foolproof as stock investing gets.

As long as you've chosen a low-cost fund (check out offerings from Vanguard and Fidelity, and stay away from broker-sold index funds), there's really only one downside to an index fund: You'll never beat the market. But for investors who don't want the risk or work of stock-picking, and who can meet their retirement goals with a market-average return, that's just fine.

Buy stocks
You're already here at The Motley Fool, perhaps the best place in the whole known universe to learn how to choose and buy good stocks. Buying good stocks when they're selling at a discount to their intrinsic value is the way for an individual investor to generate above-market returns while managing long-term risk.

If you're new to stock-picking, you can start your education right now by reading through the famous Fool's School. Got questions? Head over to our friendly Learning to Invest discussion boards for help and support.

And for some great investing ideas, check out our free Motley Fool CAPS community intelligence service, where the best stock-pickers in Fooldom pitch their favorite investments for all to see. Five-star rated companies such as Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) and Mueller Water Products (NYSE:MWA) could help fund a retirement in style ... but you'll never know unless you check 'em out!

Of course, that's where a long-term stock-picking strategy fails for some investors. If you don't have the time or inclination to research stocks and monitor your portfolio carefully year after year, it's hard to consistently stay ahead of the market with a stock portfolio. If this describes you, carefully consider the next option.

Hire someone to buy stocks for you
If you have several million dollars in your IRA, you'll have no trouble finding a capable investment manager to help you out. But if you don't, you can still get the services of a professional manager -- via an actively managed mutual fund.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the many years I spent working in the mutual fund business, I'm not a big fan of active stock funds. High fees and various institutional constraints ensure that most actively managed funds will underperform the market over the long term. There are exceptions, though ... if you know how to find them.

In fact, one of my all-time favorite mutual funds would make a great IRA choice. It's not well-known, and the manager -- one of the best in the business -- uses a somewhat unorthodox strategy, but this fund has handily outperformed the market for years. Rather than being overloaded with a few boring big-name stocks, some of its holdings include smaller companies Frontline (NYSE:FRO) and Watts Water Technologies (NYSE:WTS). I've had part of my retirement portfolio in it for several years, and I've been very pleased with its performance, even when markets have turned choppy.

What is this great fund? Find out in this month's issue of our Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter. You can click here to get yourself a 30-day free trial of Champion Funds, which will let you read Shannon Zimmerman's report on this great fund right now -- as well as reports on other terrific market-beating fund choices to help fire up your IRA's performance. There's absolutely no hidden cost or obligation to buy.

Fool contributor John Rosevear really does own the fund hinted at in the last paragraph -- June's Champion Funds selection -- but does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is flame-retardant.