Investors have lost trillions in this bear market. Yet the biggest tragedy of the stock market's plunge remains far in the future.

Certainly, most of those who already had a lot of money invested in stocks have seen their portfolio values shrink greatly. It'll take a long time for many of those investors to earn back everything they've lost in stocks -- and some, such as those close to or already in retirement, may never be as wealthy as they were in 2007.

But the legacy of the market panic of 2008 may well echo for generations. And those who'll be hit the hardest are those who never even invested in stocks -- and who now may wait years before they overcome the fear that the recent cataclysm has caused.

Getting past square one
Even under ordinary circumstances, getting started with an investing plan is never easy. Consider all the hurdles you have to overcome:

  • First, you have to figure out how to open an investing account, whether you go with an all-purpose brokerage account or just choose to invest directly with a mutual fund company.
  • Then, you have to decide which stocks or funds you want to invest in. With thousands of stocks and funds to choose from, picking from the pages upon pages of listings in your newspaper's financial section looks like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
  • Next, you have to figure out how to save the money you'll use to invest. While the exercise in budgeting is a healthy one for anyone to do, scraping together even $100 each month for an automatic investment can be difficult even during good times -- let alone in a recession, where short-term fears of losing your job abound.

And even if you manage to get started, you're not close to done. Monitoring your portfolio is a job in itself.

Why you can't procrastinate
With all those challenges, it's no wonder so many people never get off the starting line. The last thing you want to do is to make a mistake your first time out.

Ideally, you want your first investment to do well, so it will give you an incentive to keep working and finding new ways to invest successfully. In this brutal bear market, though, you probably think you have no chance of doing well -- and don't want to throw good money away in such an uncertain time.

But as hard as it is, you've got to pull the trigger now. The reason couldn't be simpler: you can't afford to wait.

You won't make it without stocks
Take a look at your options. If you want to stay conservative, you only have a few risk-free options. Investments like Treasury bonds and FDIC-insured bank CDs have absolutely no risk of losing principal. But the returns won't get you anywhere fast: even at a 4% rate -- which is hard to come by these days -- it'll take you 18 years to double your money. And inflation and taxes could easily eat up every bit of those gains, leaving you with less purchasing power than you started with.

In contrast, despite the losses that even the best-known stocks have suffered since late 2007, take a look at how they've performed over the long haul:

Stock

20-Year Annual Average Return

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)

13.3%

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

16.1%

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)

14.1%

Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)

13.5%

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)

12.6%

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Obviously, not all stocks have done this well. General Motors (NYSE:GM), for instance, has left investors behind, even if they've had their money in GM stock for decades. Yet even hard-hit financial Citigroup (NYSE:C) is still net ahead over the past 20 years, despite losing more than 90% of its value just since 2007.

Even at a conservative 8% return, you'll double your money twice as fast with stocks -- and unless your job lets you save a bucketload of cash, you'll need those results in order to reach your goals. And you can't afford to wait years before you get started.

How to start today
Tomorrow -- April 15 -- is the deadline to contribute to an IRA for the 2008 tax year. IRAs make great first investments for two reasons: You can invest in nearly anything, and you get excellent tax benefits. But perhaps the best reason to use an IRA for your first investment is because you can't procrastinate: To take maximum advantage, you have to act now.

The bear market will inevitably push some investors to take less risk than they should. But you don't have to sacrifice your dreams out of fear. Start investing today and get yourself on the road to financial security.

More on the right investments for your retirement:

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger knew it was crunch time 23 years ago, and he never looked back. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Procter & Gamble is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Intel and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble and shares and covered calls on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy can always spare some time for you.