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Thus, I am afraid to tie up too much money into retirement plans that are hands-off until 40 years down the road because I [may] need the money in the near-future. Yet, I realize that money needs to be invested for retirement now so it will be a painless process.

This isn't an either/or situation. You could have a 401(k) contribution of some of your money and use regular (taxable) investments for money you want to be able to access before you are 59.5 years old. (Add a third category: build up an emergency fund in a savings vessel, such as a money market fund or a money market account, to hold the equivalent of 3 to 6 months of living expenses to handle financial surprises we all seem to face.)

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