WHEN times get tough, so can saving for retirement.
And that appears to be the case for some workers in today's slowing economy.
An annual survey of workers' savings habits and confidence about achieving a comfortable retirement shows a reversal of gains made in recent years.
The survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 71 percent of the 1,000 workers polled early this year said they saved for retirement, down from 75 percent the year before.
And about six of 10 said they were confident they will have enough money for a comfy retirement, compared with seven of 10 last year.
The Washington nonprofit research organization attributed the decline in savers partly to a rise in unemployment, the softer economy and a fall in the stock market and in consumer confidence.
Those most likely to have halted saving live paycheck-to-paycheck, which today is more than half of American workers, said Dallas Salisbury, president of EBRI.
"If you live paycheck-to-paycheck and have no cash reserve, one of the first things that will have to go is any contributions to retirement plans," he said.
Some experts say it's easy for younger workers to lose focus on saving because retirement is far off and there are more immediate goals, such as a new car or house, competing for limited dollars.
So, how can workers stay focused on saving for retirement in good times and bad?
Automatic saving. Perhaps the easiest way to save and invest is through payroll deduction in an employer's 401(k) or similar retirement plan, experts said. That way money is taken out before workers get their paychecks, so they are less likely to miss it.
Those who don't have a plan at work can have money regularly withdrawn from a bank account into a mutual fund or individual retirement account.
There's another advantage to putting savings on autopilot.
"It takes the emotions out of investing," said Steve Ames, a planner with Ames Fee-Only Financial Planning in Annapolis. "You don't need to be paralyzed by not being able to make decision of what to buy and not to buy."
Create a budget. An earlier EBRI survey this year found that less than half of parents polled maintained a budget. Not having an idea of where money goes and spending dollars as they come in is the same as living paycheck-to-paycheck, Salisbury said.
By tracking expenses, workers can find dollars to set aside for retirement, Salisbury said.
Budgeting also can help workers find money to put in an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses, he added. This would allow workers hit by a big expense to continue adding to a retirement plan or, in severe cases, to avoid tapping into retirement savings.
Set a goal. "The people who tend to do the best are the ones that have a very clear goal: They will retire on a mountain at age 57," said Clare Hushbeck, an economist with AARP in Washington.
Sometimes an employer's retirement plan can get workers to begin thinking about their goals and when to retire, Hushbeck said. Federal workers, for instance, know upfront that they will receive maximum benefits if they work 30 years and don't retire before age 55, she said.
Make sure you know the details of your employer's plan, too, Hushbeck warned. Workers, for example, could become ineligible for valuable health care benefits in retirement by leaving a job a year or so too early, she said.
Make saving a necessity. Rather than view saving for retirement as an expense that can be trimmed in lean times, workers need to make it one of life's basics, much like keeping a roof over their head, Hushbeck said.
"Don't treat it like whatever is left at the end of the month after you buy all the lattes you want. Wait to see if you can have lattes after you set aside money," she said.
Every bit helps. Nearly half of workers who are not saving for retirement say they probably could salt away $20 a week, and the majority of those who are building a nest egg say they could beef up savings by another $20 weekly, according to the EBRI survey.
Twenty bucks a week can add up and motivate savers, Hushbeck said. "It gives you something to look at and say, 'I did this. I can do more.'"
Know what you'll need. Hire a financial planner or try one of the many software retirement programs to get an idea of how much you will need to retire comfortably, Ames said. This can be an eye-opener and a motivator to save.
Another motivator is the benefits estimate sent to many workers by the Social Security Administration each year, Salisbury said.
"The real question is: Do you think you can live on that? If you can't, you can't retire unless you have additional savings to complement Social Security," he said.
Ignore market noise. The slide in stocks this past year has shaken many investors who have never experienced a prolonged downturn, experts said. "The dips lasted longer than a day so they got nervous," said Todd Cleary of T. Rowe Price Associates in Baltimore.
Still, history shows that the stock market provides the best return for long-term investors, and investors should use the current downturn to buy shares at lower prices, experts said.
Savers can stay focused during bull and bear markets by choosing an asset allocation, which is basically how their money will be spread over stocks, bonds and cash based on their tolerance for risk and amount of time they have to invest. Then they should invest regularly and ignore the noise about short-term market ups and downs, Salisbury said. "The reason to look at your statement is simply to determine if you are way out of whack on what your asset allocation should be," he said.
Some experts see benefits to the past year's down market. Hushbeck said it reminds investors that the market moves in two directions and can help workers set more realistic savings goals, instead of relying on 25 percent returns each year.
Cleary said the market downturn likely revealed to investors their true stomach for risk.
Do you have a personal finance issue of general interest that you would like to see addressed in this column? Contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.