many of the people who called the 01 crash are calling another one in the next year. I'm nervous.
I agree with Groink as far as diversification goes.
One sure thing you might want to look into right now are CD's, online
savings accounts and money market accounts. They are guaranteed by the government and the rates on some of the better ones are yielding right at or above 5%. Check out HSBC, Citigroup, Discover, and Capital One. These types of accounts are good places to keep money at least temporarily while rates are high and the market is a little "jumpy" due to things like the war in the Middle East and an unusually high price on oil.
As far as serious investments, of course you know about real estate. But stock and bond transactions are much less hassle and much easier to maintain as long as you own them (IMO). You say you spend a large amount of time online - you might consider using an online brokerage service which allows you to buy and sell at your discretion for a few dollars per trade. You can totally rely upon your own research - there's no broker trying to push his company's self-serving recommendations on you, and the commissions on each trade are much cheaper.
I personally don't like Mutual Funds or relying upon brokers / financial planners - I like to totally control every penny I invest, and I prefer to invest at least some of my money more aggressively than most people. And I don't like to lock any of my money into anything market-based that has any type of hefty withdrawal penalties. I want to be able to move my money around as I see fit at little or no cost to me.
I buy and sell most stocks very frequently. I try to squeeze as much $ as I can out of uptrends and downtrends, take advantage of high volume jumps and drops caused by emotional reaction to news, etc. This type of investing requires a fair amount of technical analysis, watching CNBC alot, reading the Wall Street Journal (yawn), etc. Risk management (using stops, risking at most 1% of equity at any given time, etc) is VERY important for this type of investing, and there are times I tend to avoid or limit investing this way. I realize that this type of investment approach is certainly not for everyone, and is not practical for many people. You would ideally need to start with putting at least 25k in a margin account if you use an account to frequently buy and sell stocks on the same day.
But if you prefer to be exclusively a long term investor, I'd make sure that you evaluate companies' fundamentals thoroughly and still keep a pretty close eye on things. If you invest in Mutuals, you probably won't ever go totally broke, and you'll hopefully slowly but surely gain over time (although they will tend to go up and down with the market). But I don't consider them to be the best place for me to put my money at all. I'd rather play individual stocks (long and short), put some money into real estate, and also at certain times put some into bonds, CD's, money markets, and savings accounts when the rates are high.