If you don't want to suffer through a gruesome retirement, you'd better be sure you're taking advantage of IRAs, 401(k)s, or perhaps both. You can learn a heck of a lot about them in our spiffy Retirement Center, but permit me to touch on a few advantages of both.

Let's begin with 401(k)s. You can usually contribute a lot more to them than you can IRAs -- up to $16,500 in 2009, or $22,000 if you're 50 or older, versus $5,000 or $6,000 for IRAs. You can take loans out against your 401(k). (But you shouldn't!) You may also enjoy some matching funds from your employer in your 401(k); if so, be sure to take maximum advantage of that free money!

IRAs can be compelling, too. With Roth IRAs, you can ultimately withdraw your money tax-free! And you can take 401(k) accounts at jobs you leave and roll them over into IRAs. Perhaps best of all, you can invest in individual stocks in your IRA -- or the mutual funds of your choice.

Most 401(k)s offer you a relatively modest array of funds to choose from. Perhaps one or a handful of stock funds, and one or a handful of bond funds, and so on. In an IRA, you can invest in any of thousands of funds. If you discover an amazing fund, odds are it's not offered by your 401(k) -- but you can invest in it via an IRA.

The widest selection
And then there are stocks, which most 401(k) plans don't offer access to but which you can easily invest in through an IRA. Check out these large-cap companies with spectacular five-year performance records and four- or five-star ratings (out of five) from our investor community at Motley Fool CAPS:

Company

CAPS Rating

5-Year Average Annual Return

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)

****

53%

BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP)

****

22%

Hess (NYSE:HES)

*****

23%

Hansen Natural (NASDAQ:HANS)

****

81%

Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG)

****

44%

Monsanto (NYSE:MON)

****

36%

Titanium Metals (NYSE:TIE)

*****

20%

Data: Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool CAPS.

Maybe you'd been interested in Apple because of its successful iPods. Maybe you saw the price of gas rising and wanted to invest in energy stocks. Maybe you were excited about Intuitive Surgical's robots, or Hansen Natural's energy drinks. You couldn't have invested in these companies directly in a 401(k), but you could in an IRA. So keep these differences in mind as you allocate your money.

If you'd like to salvage your retirement in this brutal enviromnent, and get recommendations for promising stocks and mutual funds for your golden years, I encourage you to try our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service free for 30 days. I think you'll like what you see.

Frustrated with your 401(k)? Even if your employer's plan isn't the greatest, you don't have to give up your dreams of a happy retirement. Get the tips you need to turn your retirement savings around in our special report, "How To Make The Most of Your 401(k)" -- just click here for instant free access.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Apple and Intuitive Surgical (and wishes she'd bought them five years ago). Hansen Natural and Intuitive Surgical are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Apple and Titanium Metals are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.