"Your check is in the mail."

American investors have seldom seemed more eager to hear those words -- especially when it comes to locking in income for their older years. Ever since the 2008 crash, when Joe and Mary Mainstreet lost faith in the stock market, millions of people have poured their savings into investments that return some kind of regular paycheck, whether bonds, annuities or (for the bold) stocks that pay dividends.

And the hunt for income has only become more intense as the enormous baby boomer demographic bulge reaches retirement age, with some 10,000 boomers turning 65 each day.

Indeed, converting savings into a living has become "the holy grail of every working stiff," says Dan Culloton, the associate director of fund analysis for Morningstar.

And yet, in one of the biggest frustrations facing retirees today, reeling in a check that's both reliable and big enough to pay the bills has begun to seem like a pipe dream. Increasingly, alarmed investors are finding that "guaranteed" payouts offer only penny-ante 1% and 2% returns -- or involve unpalatable risks.

It's hard to fathom, but not that long ago, a soon-to-be-retired couple could scoop up safe Treasury and corporate bonds that paid 7% or 8%. Today, it takes a gambler's heart and a taste for junk bonds to come close to that.

Dividend stocks? On average, they pay barely half of what they did in the 1990s. As for annuities, some widely advertised products pay nothing until the buyer turns 85. And as we all learned this summer, even Social Security, the once untouchable retirement-backup plan, is now in play, a bargaining chip in the ongoing political wrangle over government spending.

Of course, retirement investments have always gone through cycles, and the conditions that are making things so harsh today could change quickly. But advisers say they can't remember a time that was quite so tough for cash-flow hunters -- and it only got tougher after this summer's market gyrations. After all, even the most prudent income-generator can't get far in retirement if his portfolio gets whacked.

Instead, the pros say, a generation whose parents retired on a low-maintenance cushion of bonds and bank CDs needs a new playbook for today's reality.

Bonds and dividend stocks

When it came to turning savings into income, generations of retirees relied on two main pillars: bonds, which gave them a stream of interest payments from loans to governments and corporations, and stock dividends, a share of the revenue of solid, cash-rich companies.

Bonds were seen as an almost-sure thing, because corporations virtually never defaulted or missed a payment (since 1981, the default rate on corporate bonds is under 2%), while the likelihood of a government default was even more remote. As for dividends, they were a staple of stock investing for most of the 20th century, and since 1926 they've accounted for 42% of the total returns from stocks, according to research firm Ibbotson Associates.

The good news is that those sure-thing payments are still flowing; even a nasty bout of political brinkmanship over the debt ceiling couldn't shut off the Treasury stream.

The problem is, the paychecks these days amount to bupkes. Bond interest -- or "yield" -- has skirted record lows, driven down by heavy demand from safety-seeking investors. And dividends have dropped steadily in recent years as well.

Right now, the dividend yield of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) sits at 2.2%, barely half its historical average. Though corporate profits have rebounded, many companies are guarding their cash for another rainy day or using it for acquisitions. All that shrinkage has created a painful contrast for retirees. If a couple had retired in 1991 and put $1 million in 10-year Treasury bonds, they would have received annual payouts of around $84,000. A couple trying the same maneuver this summer would reap only $22,400 a year.

That same million invested in the S&P 500 would have generated about $57,000 in dividends in 1982; today it's more like $22,000. Factor in taxes and inflation, and investors in either scenario could be effectively losing money.

"You're getting your pocket picked," says Mark Kiesel, the global head of corporate bonds at investment giant Pimco.

Interest-rate increases in the United States could actually help some income investors, by giving them a chance to buy new bonds with higher yields. But with the economy rocky, that seems unlikely to happen soon, so many investors are looking abroad to find bonds that are less stingy.

William Larkin, a fixed-income portfolio manager for Cabot Money Management, likes inflation-protected bonds issued by foreign governments. The exchange-traded fund SPDR DB International Government Inflation-Protected Bond (WIP) invests in bonds from countries like Brazil and France, and typically yields between 4% and 5%; its yield will go up if inflation rises near São Paulo or the Seine.

In the dividend universe, the average yield for emerging-market stocks sits at a shareholder-friendly 2.6%. For those who'd rather invest onshore, sector strategist Nicholas Bohnsack, of investment advisory firm Strategas Research Partners, likes cash-rich U.S. companies that have signaled plans to increase their dividends, including tech stalwarts Cisco Systems (CSCO, news) and Microsoft (MSFT, news). (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)

The solutions

Build a ladder: Investors can help protect their bond income from inflation by setting up a "bond ladder" -- essentially, a portfolio of short-term bonds that lets them gradually replace low-yielding bonds with higher-paying ones if interest rates rise. Advisers warn, however, that the strategy tends to work only with portfolios of six figures or more, and that the frequent trading involved can generate high transaction fees.

Don't take every TIP: Inflation-protected bonds, whose yields rise when inflation climbs, were designed to help investors weather rising rates. But rates are so low in the United States that some TIPS -- the Treasury Department's version of the bonds -- currently have negative yields. For now, some advisers are steering assets toward inflation-protected bonds issued by foreign governments; these days, some of them yield more than 5%.