Ask for a higher salary.
Research conducted by Michele Gelfand, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, found that men tend to view salary negotiation as a game, while women are more likely to dread the experience as though it were a trip to the dentist. But if you think about it, negotiating your pay isn't that big a risk—the worst they can do is say no. On the other hand, failing to ask for a bigger paycheck may haunt you for the rest of your career; the ramifications could be significant not just for your current finances, but also for your future retirement funds. Let's say you're 35 and a potential employer wants to pay you $60,000 a year. If you negotiate to $65,000, you'll earn nearly $240,000 more during your career, assuming that you receive annual raises of 3 percent and retire at 65. (Plus, you'll be in a better position to lobby for a bigger salary at your next job.) And that's not where the extra dividends end: If you work for a company that matches your retirement contributions up to a certain percentage of your salary, you'll receive even more money.
Invest already—no matter what the market is doing.
Stop waiting for the perfect opportunity. Even if you consistently have horrible timing, history suggests that you'll come out ahead in the long run. The Schwab Center for Financial Research reviewed how $2,000 invested annually between 1993 and 2012 (a period that included the dot-com crash and global financial crisis) would have grown based on the investor's long-term strategy. If you'd left that money in cash (for example, bank accounts or Treasury bills), you'd have wound up with about $51,300 at the end of the 20-year period. But if you'd bought $2,000 in stock every year even at the highest prices, you'd have pocketed nearly $72,500.
And keep in mind that the younger you are when you invest, the more you stand to gain. Set aside $250 a month starting at age 30, and you'll have more than $355,000 by age 65, assuming a 6 percent annualized return. (That's a conservative estimate based on historical returns for a diversified portfolio.) Just $105,000 of that would be money you contributed; growth over time would supply the rest. Wait until age 45, though, and you won't accumulate that amount by age 65 unless you invest about $770 a month—that means putting in $80,000 more of your own funds.
Don't get too cautious in retirement.
The end of your career could be just the beginning of a very long phase of your life. (A 65-year-old today can expect to live, on average, into her 80s.) With potentially decades to go, you shouldn't plan to keep 100 percent of your retirement money in cash or short-term bonds, no matter how tempted you may be to protect your nest egg. Even "safe" investments carry their own kind of risk: Cash and bonds lasting five years or less currently pay anywhere from a fraction of a percent to 2.3 percent interest, but your retirement accounts need to grow at a pace that exceeds inflation, which has averaged around 3 percent over the long term. (At that rate, what costs $100 today will cost more than $240 in 30 years.) Stocks have typically delivered the highest gains over time, so keeping even a small portion of your post-retirement portfolio in the markets can be a smart hedge against rising prices. If your retirement lasts more than two decades, playing it too safe could make you sorry.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau). To ask Suze a question, go to oprah.com/omagazine_talk.