Stein, who serves as spokesman for the annual National Retirement Planning Week, says he's worried that many people won't be able to retire or will have saved so little that they'll outlive their money.
He scoffs at the excuses people come up with for not saving.
''People tell me, 'I have to buy a new coat' or 'I have to have a flat-screen TV,''' Stein said in an interview. ''Then in the next breath they say, 'But I don't have enough money to save.'''
Stein, an economist in addition to being a humorist, wants Americans to look at their retirement nest eggs and try to develop a plan to make them grow.
Young people can take advantage of compounding interest over time. Stein's advice to them is to ''save systematically, and you'll be golden.'' He suggests a savings target of 10 percent of income.
Older people may need to do some strategizing, and that may require the help of a financial planner or other trusted adviser, he said. But the closer a person is to retirement age, the more important it is to act fast.
''Start immediately, even if you're in your 50s,'' he said. ''It's never too late.''
There's little question but that Americans need to think more seriously about retirement savings. A survey by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., found that just 42 percent of workers or their spouses have done a calculation of how much they need for retirement. That's down from 53 percent in 2000.
Dallas L. Salisbury, chief executive of the institute, believes the decline is related to fear.
''People liked doing it in the years when they could do their calculations using a high investment return, and they felt good,'' he said. ''As rates of return came down in the last couple of years, they stopped. People don't like bad news.''
But, he said, workers need to do those calculations if they're going to increase their retirement savings rate. A good online calculator is at www.asec.org/ballpark, a site maintained by the EBRI-affiliated American Savings Education Council.
According to the EBRI survey, 45 percent of workers have less than $25,000 saved for retirement, while just 18 percent have $100,000 or more. Even among workers 55 and older, 29 percent have less than $25,000 put away, while 26 percent have $100,000 or more.
Salisbury says people need to start by tracking their spending for a month or so to determine where their money is going. Then they need to make a budget that includes setting aside some money each month for retirement.
''I recommend some type of automatic transfer,'' Salisbury said. That is, workers could have a portion of their paycheck deposited directly into a company-sponsored retirement account or into an Individual Retirement Account. Earnings in both accounts aren't taxed until they're withdrawn at retirement.
Bruce Harrington, a vice president with MFS Investment Management in Boston, recommends that people look seriously at maxing out their company-sponsored 401(k) or 403(b) retirement accounts.
The contribution limit for these tax-sheltered accounts will rise to $14,000 in 2005 from $13,000 this year. Workers 50 and older can add a catch-up contribution of $4,000 next year, up from $3,000 this year.
The maximums on IRA accounts rise to $4,000 next year from $3,000 this year, with a $500 catch-up provision for those 50 and older.
''Most people don't figure out their retirement plan how much they'll need to live off of until they're 3 to 5 years away from retiring,'' Harrington said. ''That's like going to the airport and then deciding what vacation you're going to go on.''
Harrington suggests that people ''spend 15 minutes and figure out how much you need to retire,'' which in many cases is about 80 percent of your current income. MFS offers a retirement planning calculator on its Web site at www.mfs.com.
''Look at gap between where you are and where you should be and start working to fill it,'' Harrington said.
One strategy, he said, is for workers to commit to increasing their contributions to their retirement accounts by a percentage point or two every year until they reach the maximum. Many companies that sponsor plans offer workers help in allocating their savings among stocks, bonds and other investments, he noted. Or people can seek help from professional planners.
''The pot at the end of the rainbow is that you'll be able to retire with dignity,'' he said.
The National Retirement Planning Week site, which also includes calculators, is at www.retireonyourterms.org.
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