Pros fess up to their retirement-building blunders

Two years later, she attended another seminar and ended up buying a second Florida timeshare — this one even more expensive than the first. Her reasoning: "If it was a darn good idea the first time, it was a good idea the second time.

"The thing I failed to figure out ahead of time," Garrett says, "was how much the darn things cost."

She spends more than $1,000 a year on taxes and maintenance fees for her timeshares. Exchanging them for another location costs an additional $300. And she's found it difficult to exchange her weeks in Florida for timeshares in places she'd prefer to go.

When Garrett tried to sell her timeshares, she learned another tough lesson: Timeshares are lousy investments. On the secondary market, she says, buyers can buy timeshares for a fraction of their original value.

What she would have done differently:

She would have skipped the free breakfast. "The only way you can truly protect yourself from this kind of a pitch is to not allow the pitch to ever occur," Garrett says. "They don't buy you a breakfast and give you $50 and let you out easily.

"The only thing that I can do, and I finally learned this about myself, is I don't put myself in a situation where somebody is going to make a sales pitch to me unless it's something I already want to own."

Tom Gardner

Co-founder and CEO of The Motley Fool, an investment advice website

Biggest mistake:Selling too soon.

"The tempting thing is to think of situations where you purchase a stock, and it goes down 20% or 40%," Gardner says. But the biggest mistake he says investors make — and the biggest one he's ever made — is "selling too soon."

Gardner bought Dell stock in 1995 at about $35 a share. By the next year, it had soared about 25%.

"That was a wonderful return. I thought, 'It's great!' So I sold. I remember saying, 'I will get back into this great company when it gets back to my price.' " He never did, and the company's stock has since grown 40 times in value.

"That was a pain," he says.

Investors should learn to "travel with greatness," Gardner says. "Most investors should be inclined to hold the companies they like. Over time, the pain is when you sell a Whole Foods or a Starbucks or a Charles Schwab, and it just keeps going up."

What he would have done differently:

"I should have thought of myself as an investor in a business, not an investor in a stock," Gardner says.

That means looking for companies that command powerful market positions and executives with big personal stakes in the company. It's even better if the CEO/founder has his name on the company, he says, such as Michael Dell of Dell.

Don't look just at short-term earnings and stock prices, Gardner says.

"If you can find a situation where the CEO owns a large stake in the business, where he's demonstrated a passion for the business, and there is great market opportunity, then that's one where you just close your eyes and hold on for 10 years. Like Oracle or Microsoft or Dell or or eBay or Yahoo. Even though Yahoo has had troubles at some points, it's still gone up 30 times in value since it went public."

Gardner points to Warren Buffett, who Gardner says recently looked at all the stock purchases he'd ever made. "Buffett said, 'I would have made more money if I had never sold a share of stock I'd bought since I was 11 years old.' He says he lost a lot of money 'fiddling around.' "

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