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Related topics: retirement, retirement planning, Social Security, 401k, retirement savings

Half of U.S. households don't have enough money saved to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That's up from 43% in 2004.

One-third of U.S. workers have tapped a retirement account to pay basic living expenses, according to the latest Employee Benefit Research Institute retirement confidence survey, and 27% say they're "not confident at all" that they'll have enough money to retire.

The financial crisis and recession devastated worker retirement accounts, cost millions of people their jobs and left many homeowners "underwater," cutting them off from a last-resort source of retirement funds: home equity.

The result is a lot of anxiety about the future. I asked readers on my Facebook page to tell me if they were worried about not being able to retire, and here are some of their responses:

  • "Age 45, unemployed two years, feel like I lost everything. Had to cash in all my retirement funds, investments, etc. just to survive. Now having to start over as a single mom, finally working again, but money is tight. I don't know how I'll ever get on track to retire. My retirement at this point depends upon the miraculous arrival of the Publisher's Clearing House prize patrol van."
  • "I was laid off from my insurance job in 2008 and hired as a state worker a year ago; my take-home pay is less than I was getting on unemployment. My husband is 56 and has been unemployed for nearly 3 years. We have no savings left and not much to look forward to. A lot of it was the old 'grasshopper' syndrome; not saving for a rainy day; unwise choices; my own fault? Absolutely. That doesn't make the fear any less; the reality of my/our situation becomes more fearful every day."
  • "My husband and I are 55 and college and retirement will be hitting at the same time. I've not worked in over a year, our home value and 401(k) have dropped, and we know retirement is a long way off."
  • "At 56, last year I used all my own money and retirement funds to dig myself out of the pit of not having a job or qualifying for unemployment due to the job I had. I couldn't find a job, and short sold both homes, settled on credit cards using all my own money. Now I'm looking at a poor credit history, no retirement and a big bill to Uncle Sam until the end of my days . . . all for trying to do it the 'right' way without filing bankruptcy. Living with my children, the tables have turned, I can't afford a place of my own now that I'm back to work . . . so depressing."

Terri Beth Chenault Verrette of Albuquerque, N.M., is one of those who fears for her future. Verrette, 47, said a divorce seven years ago left her with a junker car, two kids "and the clothes on my back." She has worked for a mortgage broker that went out of business, a nonprofit that lost its funding in the financial crisis and a bank that went into receivership. She's never made more than $35,000, even though she has a college degree in business administration, and her access to workplace retirement plans was limited in part because most had a one-year waiting period.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"I have two little accounts -- one with $800 in it and one with $2,000," said Verrette, who now works for a temp agency. "I'll be lucky if I drop dead when I'm 70 and I don't have to eat cat food."

Planning to work longer, or indefinitely, is a common response to the retirement crisis. One in five U.S. workers now plans to delay retirement, according to the survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI.

But for many, that plan won't pan out. According to EBRI, 45% of current retirees say they had to quit working earlier than they intended, often because of poor health or layoffs.

So what's a realistic plan for rebuilding your retirement savings? Follow the five R's of retirement in the 21st century:

1. Resist despair

If you believe your situation is hopeless, you're unlikely to take the actions that could make your life dramatically better in the future.

For example: The stock market crash cost the nation's retirement savers trillions of dollars. Some people sold all their stocks and vowed never to invest again.

But 87% of 401k accounts today are worth more than they were before the crash, said Dallas Salisbury, EBRI's chief executive officer. That's because savers kept contributing and because of dollar-cost averaging, which allowed people to pay depressed prices back then for mutual fund shares that are now worth more.

In other words, people who didn't panic -- who continued contributing and didn't cash out -- are better off than they were a few years ago.

Another issue that often depresses would-be savers is the condition of the Social Security system. Many people believe, incorrectly, that it will soon run out of money and stop paying benefits. In reality, Social Security is scheduled to have enough money to pay full benefits until 2037. After that, without congressional changes, there will be enough money to pay 76% of promised benefits.

Changes in the system, such as higher ages for full retirement benefits, an increase in the cap on the maximum income that is tapped and an increase in the payroll tax rate, could allow the system to pay all promised benefits.

So you probably will be able to count on at least some Social Security benefits. But you also should save on your own. That means moving on to the next step.

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2. Do some reconnaissance

Many people have never tried to determine how much they will actually need for retirement. The EBRI study showed that 42% simply guessed.

So your first step should be to use a retirement calculator, such as the one that MSN provides. You can play with the inputs -- especially retirement age, savings rate and how much of your current income you want to replace -- to see if you can come up with a plan that works. If so, you'll want to put your plan into effect immediately by boosting your retirement contributions at work or setting up an automatic transfer into an individual retirement account.

Don't procrastinate. Many people who know they need to save more never do, and every $100 you fail to set aside today can cost you $1,000 or more in future retirement income, thanks to the value of compounding.

Can't make the numbers work? Then it's time for the other three R's.