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I second the suggestion to start with a cash account (my local bank offers IRA accounts with no fee). Put this year's contributions in there.
And next year's.
You can learn about stock investing and set up a IRA with Vanguard (or whomever you choose). You can transfer $ from the cash account to the investment account when you're ready to buy stocks.

Think about investing in companies that are already coping well with the economic trends (higher fuel costs, more aging Americans, less loan money available). You're looking for the long term here.
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