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Nervous? Here are some safe choices

You have only a few more days to open an individual retirement account for the 2013 tax year, and you should, because the earlier in life you save for retirement, the more you will have later — and not just a little more, but a lot more.

Consider the 25-year-old who puts $5,000 into an IRA every year and earns 7 percent, on average, annually in a mutual fund. By age 68, that IRA would provide about $1.2 million for retirement. But if the person waited until 35 to invest $5,000 a year, he or she would only accumulate about $590,000. If the person delayed until age 45, the sum would total only about $354,000. That would provide about $14,200 a year to live on in retirement.

So no matter what your age, now's the time to put money to work. If you are hesitating because you are afraid you will need to get your hands on the money before retirement, fear no longer. Open a Roth IRA, not a regular IRA, and you can take your original contribution out of the account at any time and for any reason. Whether you start your Roth IRA with $1,000, or the maximum of $5,500, you will be able to remove that money from the account next week, next month, next year or any time. The rule is that you must leave what you earn on Roth IRA investments in the account for at least five years and until you are 591/2;, but your original contributions are there for the taking.

There's also no penalty if you remove money to pay for college or a first house. But if you are like a lot of people, you might hesitate because you are confused this year about where to invest the money.

If you are paralyzed, make the contribution to your Roth IRA by April 15, park the money in a money market fund and then take a few days to decide on investments. Long term, a money market fund will earn almost nothing, so don't stay there indefinitely.

A simple approach with investing could be picking what's known as a target date mutual fund that has the year you are likely to retire in its name.

But if you are nervous about the stock market after its near-180 percent climb since early 2009, you might want a fund designed for a more cautious approach. And if you think, as some analysts do, that U.S. stocks might be vulnerable because they've become too expensive, there are options outside the U.S.

Morningstar analyst Russel Kinnel suggests FPA Crescent as a defensive fund. That doesn't mean it won't lose money if the stock market declines sharply. This fund includes stocks and bonds, and funds containing stocks will get hit temporarily if the stock market tanks. But this fund has a lot of insulation. Recently, it had about 44 percent of the portfolio parked in cash. That's unusually high and a lot of protection. Most funds, even cautious ones, don't put even 10 percent in cash because investors get impatient with lackluster gains when the stock market is hot.

Kinnel notes that the manager of this fund, Steve Romick, tends to pick fairly cheap stocks, which will provide some protection if investors start to dump the priciest stocks in the market.

Another bargain hunter, with about 20 percent in cash, is First Eagle Global. This fund invests in U.S. and non-U.S. stocks. Like FPA Crescent, it focuses on preserving a person's money, Kinnel said. Vanguard Wellesley Income does that too but is heavier in bonds than the other two. That makes it a good pick if investors are worried about pricey stocks, but it also could disappoint investors if bonds suffer losses in a rising-interest-rate environment.

Investors looking for cheaper stocks have bought European and emerging-market companies. Kinnel is fond of Oakmark Global Select, which invests in developed countries and especially Europe.

Other possibilities for overseas stocks would be Vanguard Total International Stock or iShares Core MSCI Total International Stock. Both are completely invested in stocks, without cash or bonds to provide a buffer in a rough market. In contrast to funds like Crescent, First Eagle or Vanguard Wellesley, the all-stock international funds would fall sharply in a market downturn.

Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email her at gmarksjarvis@tribune.com.