Kamie Zaracki, CEO of BetterInvesting, says she’s frequently asked what she thinks about people putting their extra cash into 401(k) plans.

The expectation might be that Zaracki would be anti-401(k) and pro-individual stock picking. The Madison Heights, Mich.,-based BetterInvesting, after all, dates back to 1951 and built a network of investment clubs across the country by offering a strategy for researching and selecting individual stocks. The group was originally known as the National Association of Investors Corp.

The Michigan-based not-for-profit group now works with 5,700 investment clubs nationwide. It has a total of 45,600 members, including individuals not in clubs. But it reaches more than 100,000 investors through its website and other efforts. The theory is that investors can get together in a club, each set aside maybe $50 or more a month and make money picking stocks, if they do their homework.

But Zaracki says she surprises some by saying that it makes sense for people to invest in 401(k) plans, particularly if they receive matching money from an employer.

“If you have the opportunity to participate in one, do,” said Zaracki, 57.

For Zaracki, it’s not either-or when it comes to 401(k)s and stocks. Many people cannot just depend on a 401(k) plan for retirement and need to understand more about investing, she said.

Zaracki calls BetterInvesting and the investment clubs a “learning lab for investing.”

The group is introducing sharper online tools later this month at The goal is to make it easier to study stocks and screen options. One feature on the website includes an electronic “open house,” where individuals can get better insight into the group’s Stock Selection Guide methodology.

To be sure, BetterInvesting once saw better days for investing.

At one point, the National Association of Investors Corp. claimed it had grown to more than 550,000 members during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s.

But plenty of people no longer view stock picking as a road to financial security after the tech bubble early last decade and the financial meltdown in 2008-09.

The stock club itself came under some scrutiny in 2004 involving a Senate committee investigation into excessive salaries for executives and leased luxury cars.

The group survived by adding new leadership and downsizing. The company at one point employed roughly 100 people; it is down to about 28 people. BetterInvesting renegotiated contracts, changed vendors and cut costs.

“We definitely sharpened the pencil,” said Zaracki, who took over as CEO in January 2009.

For many investors, it’s always been interesting to watch the investment club stock picks, too. Those also are listed online.

For the trailing eight weeks ended Sept. 1, one of the most active companies attracting interest of the BetterInvesting clubs and community included Ford. Other popular stocks include Apple, 3D Systems and Qualcomm.