If you started saving $500 a month at the beginning of the decade and put it into a savings account that earned little to no interest, you'd have about $60,000 today.
That might seem like a lot, but that $60,000 wouldn't stretch quite as far today as the same amount would have 10 years ago. And it will be worth even less in another decade. That's because of inflation, which causes prices to rise over time, making money less powerful. While a $20 bill will always be worth $20, what you're able to buy with that amount dwindles.
Over the past 10 years, inflation has typically risen between 1% and 3% per year. In 2019, it was about 2.1%. That means you'd need around $72,000 in 2019 to command the same purchasing power $60,000 would have granted you in 2009.
In order to beat inflation and ensure that your savings will work for you long term, it's crucial to invest in the stock market, whether through an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, a traditional or Roth IRA, an individual brokerage account or somewhere else.
Where you choose to invest your money within those investment vehicles matters too, because the amount you earn from the market hinges on the rate of return your investment garners.
Here's exactly how much you'd have now if your investments had grown at a 4%, 6%, or 8% rate of return over the past decade, according to CNBC calculations.
If you'd invested in a company such as Amazon or Google, whose stocks saw impressive returns over the past decade, your investment would have grown much faster than 8%. However, investing in individual companies is risky. Any individual stock can over- or underperform, and past returns do not predict future results.
Other investments, such as low-cost index funds, might not have been the absolute most lucrative over the last 10 years, but they're far less risky, which makes them a good long-term choice. Because they're made up of all of the companies in a certain index, such as the S&P 500, they tend to weather market volatility better.
With an ETF, if one company's stock tanks while another's stock surges, those actions balance each other out in the index. But if you're solely invested in a company whose stock ends up falling, you're guaranteed a loss.
In the past decade, the S&P 500 had a total return of 225%. If you started investing $500 a month in an S&P 500 index fund 10 years ago, you'd have roughly $120,000 today, according to CNBC calculations. That's just about double what you earned if you just left your money in a savings account.
What's most important is that you start investing as early as you can to give your money as much time as possible to grow. If you're new to the market, that might seem overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Here are a few easy ways to get started:
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!