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FORGET ABSTRACT RETIREMENT NOTIONS -- YOU NEED A REALISTIC PLAN

The retirement savings story in America plays like a scratched record. Again and again we hear the same line -- most people aren't saving enough for their retirement.

The nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute and Mathew Greenwald & Associates last week released the results of its annual Retirement Confidence Survey. And guess what?

Same tune.

A majority of workers say they are behind schedule when it comes to planning and saving for retirement. While 7 in 10 workers report that they and their spouses have saved something for retirement, by their own accounts it won't be enough.

More than half of those surveyed report that the total value of their savings and investments, excluding their primary home, is less than $25,000.

Does this sound like you? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Worry? Ignore the problem? Hope you hit the lottery?

Or you could read April's Color of Money Book Club selection, "The Retirement Catch-Up Guide: 54 Real-Life Lessons to Boost Your Future Resources Now!" by Ellen Hoffman (Newmarket Press, $22.95).

"When the moment of retirement planning truth arrives, keep in mind that you do still have some decisions to make and some options from which to choose," Hoffman writes. "Instead of sticking to the same path you've always followed -- keeping the same job, retiring at the age you chose 20 years ago, and resigning yourself to a low-budget retirement, don't be afraid to consider other changes."

This is the second month in a row that I've selected a retirement book to discuss. That's because retirement saving is one of the most critical financial issues facing people today.

Who knows what will happen to Social Security? And fewer and fewer employees can rely on a company pension. But as Hoffman points out in her book, it's never too late to start catching up.

What I like about Hoffman's book are the real life examples of people who were able to play retirement catch-up even though they had slipped financially because of a low-paying job, procrastination, credit card debt, a divorce, business failure or bad investments.

The people she profiles should serve as an inspiration if you've fallen behind and as proof that you too can make some changes to improve your retirement savings outlook.

Hoffman says no matter what your situation, you have to shift gears if your plans aren't working out. For example, one couple who had invested in universal life insurance policies -- hoping that was the answer to their lackluster retirement savings -- realized after consulting with a financial planner that the policies were a mistake. Even though cashing out the policies meant losing about $10,000, they decided it was better to cut their losses than to remain in that bad investment.

"The path to achieving your retirement goals is not always a direct one," Hoffman says. "Jobs may change, investments may earn less than you expect, or you may make mistakes along the way. What's important is to remain flexible."

Each chapter in Hoffman's book lays out a strategy to help get you closer to your retirement goals. For instance, she encourages people to rethink their work plans. To save enough for retirement, you may have to give up your dream of retiring at age 62 or 65. You may need to switch careers or work part-time in retirement.

To start catching up, Hoffman says the first step is to organize all your financial documents. Check on all your possible retirement resources, including how much you will get from Social Security.

The key is to develop a plan, Hoffman says.

"The more abstract your concept of retirement is, the harder it will be to save and plan to make it a reality," she writes.

Less than half of those surveyed in the retirement confidence survey said they had tried to figure out how much money they will actually need in retirement.

Retirement planning is like taking a road trip to an unfamiliar location. You can guess how long it will take to get to your destination and which routes to travel, but you'll probably get lost, be late or perhaps never arrive.

But if you plan your trip, and ask for directions if necessary, you'll know precisely what it takes to get from point A to point B. The same is true for retirement planning.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at www.washingtonpost.com at noon on April 28. Hoffman will be my guest.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book and come chat online with me and the author. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive copies of the selected book donated by the publishers. For a chance to win a copy of "The Retirement Catch-Up Guide," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.

e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com