Nervous about retirement savings? Here's how to prepare

Worried about your ability to retire? You're not alone. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute's 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, nearly one-fourth of U.S. workers are "not at all confident" that they'll have enough money to retire, while 19 percent reported that they are "not too confident."

On a more positive note, employees' confidence about retirement has rebounded slightly from the record low levels that followed the housing crash. The share of workers who are now very confident that they'll have enough money to retire comfortably increased to 18 percent, up from 13 percent in 2013. Thirty-seven percent of workers now report that they're "somewhat confident." Most of that increase is attributed to higher-income households and workers who participate in a retirement plan -- no surprise here.

Confidence among current retirees has always been somewhat higher than for workers, and this year is no different. Twenty-eight percent of current retirees reported that they're very confident they'll have enough money to have a comfortable retirement, up from 18 percent in 2013's report.

If you compare the characteristics of people who report confidence about retirement to those who aren't confident, you get a short list of recommendations on ways to improve your retirement. Spoiler alert: The suggestions are pretty fundamental and obvious.

Participate in a retirement plan. Workers who report that they or their spouse participate in a retirement plan at work or contribute to an IRA are more than twice as likely to report being very confident about retirement, compared to those reporting they don't participate in such a plan (24 percent vs. 9 percent).

Recommendation: If you're eligible to participate in a retirement plan at work but have declined, start saving now. If you don't have a retirement plan at work, open an IRA and start saving.

Calculate how much money you need to retire comfortably. Less than half of all workers (44 percent) report they've ever tried to calculate how much money they need to retire. Workers who have figured this out are much more likely to report that they're confident about retirement compared to those who haven't prepared this calculation (25 percent vs. 13 percent). Furthermore, those who have prepared such a calculation are more likely to report higher target amounts of savings needed to retire (which is more realistic, I might add), compared to those who haven't prepared this calculation.

Recommendation: Attempt to calculate how much money you need to retire; many retirement plans offer online retirement calculators or guidelines for determining how much to save. If you don't feel comfortable preparing this calculation yourself, find a financial professional that you trust who can help you do this.

Manage your debt. Twenty percent of workers and 16 percent of retirees report that their level of debt is a major problem, while an additional 38 percent of workers and 28 percent of retirees report their debt is a minor problem. There's a significant relationship between debt and lack of confidence about retirement. Only 3 percent of workers who report that debt is a major problem also report they're very confident about their ability to retire, whereas 29 percent of workers who report that debt is not a concern also report that they're very confident about retirement. On the other hand, 49 percent of workers who report that their level of debt is a major problem also report they're not at all confident about having enough money to retire, whereas only 16 percent of workers who report that debt is not a problem report that they're not confident about retirement.

Recommendation: Tear up your credit cards, or find the discipline to pay them off in full each month. When you hear persuasive ads to buy stuff, tune them out. Remember, they just want you to spend money on their products, and they really don't care if you'll ever retire -- they just want your money.

These recommendations are pretty basic. Participate in a retirement plan. Calculate how much money you need to retire. Save for retirement. Manage your debt. For many people, these steps are easier said than done; the cost of living and everyday expenses are cited by 53 percent of workers as the reasons they don't save for retirement (or don't save more).

Nevertheless, as difficult as these steps may be, the Retirement Confidence Survey provides a roadmap for improving your retirement confidence. Why not start following those guidelines now?

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.