When Gary and Mary Beth Bassford first talked to a financial planner six years before they retired, they were shocked.

"I looked at him, and I said, 'How in the world are we going to do that?' " recalled Mary Beth Bassford when she was told how much money they needed to save.

But the former Timonium residents, now both 67, took the advice and put together a detailed budget to build the savings, and they tried to live on their anticipated retirement income even before they retired. While they'd already considered themselves budget-conscious, the dry run living on a reduced income helped them achieve their retirement goals.

Financial planners differ on when people should start trying on their future retirement incomes — some suggest as early as the mid-50s, while others recommend a few years beforehand. But all agree that planning ahead is critical.

Having done it herself, Mary Beth Bassford believes that everyone should try living at their retirement income level in advance.

"They better, or they won't be able to make it," she said. "You have to be disciplined, because when you retire and you don't know what you're spending and what you should spend, you get in trouble."

Gary Bassford retired in December 2008, selling his interest in Media Dimensions Inc., the media production business he owned in Baltimore. His wife, retired about two years later from the Greenwood Group, a towing and repossession company, and the couple started a new life in Las Vegas in May 2011.

"We had peace of mind, because we felt we'd have the kind of income so we didn't have to change our lifestyle," Gary Bassford said. "That whole process has been our road map ever since. We still live by that budget."

These days, both work a few hours a week at a fitness center to make a little lunch money but mostly to lend structure to their week, she said.

Their financial planner, Eric D. Brotman, president and managing principal of Brotman Financial Group Inc. in Timonium, points to the Bassfords as a powerful example of people who can stick to a budget, but he acknowledges that the exercise has had limited success with others.

"A dress rehearsal is just not the same," he said. "You really don't know what it's going to feel like until it goes live."

Brotman believes that people who retire well share three qualities: health, predictable sources of income that they cannot outlive, and no debt.

Most Americans will retire with Social Security benefits, which now average $1,294 a month for individuals or $2,111 for couples. And far fewer workers today can look forward to a pension than they could a few decades ago. While public-sector jobs typically continue to offer traditional pensions with defined benefits, only about 17 percent of private-sector companies do so today, compared with about 45 percent during the mid-1980s, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

That means more people must rely on personal savings, either through employee-sponsored plans such as a 401(k) or on their own with Individual Retirement Accounts or other vehicles.

To supplement their retirement income, Brotman recommends that people put away 15 cents of every dollar they earn, starting with their first job, after first taking care of any debt.

But few people do. Brotman cited a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates warning that 36 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 saved for retirement and only 11 percent have amassed $250,000.

"It's the tsunami coming for this country," he said. "We have an entire generation in this country not prepared. Folks have no idea how expensive it's going to be and how long they're going to live."

One challenge with planning ahead is getting people to understand the true value of the lump sum of money in their portfolios, said Gary Koenig, the AARP Public Policy Institute's director of economic security.

"Most people don't quite get what a lump sum means in terms of an income stream,'' he said. "It sounds like a whole lot of money, but when you think of life expectancy, it doesn't translate into a whole lot of money."

The average life expectancy of a 65-year-old today is 20 years, according to the Social Security Administration.