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It's a lingering effect of the Great Recession: More Americans doubt they can retire with enough money to make it through their golden years.

Unfortunately, such pessimism isn't necessarily causing them to save more for retirement, researchers say. Instead, a growing number of workers plan to stay at their jobs well past 65, an option that carries with it the risk of unexpected illness and workplace upheaval.

Twenty-eight percent of U.S. workers say they are "not at all confident" about having enough money for a comfortable retirement, according to a new survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The Washington-based nonprofit reported that only 10 percent of workers gave that answer in 2007.

In the recession, confidence "fell right off the table" for those who had saved little for retirement, said Jack VanDerhei, the group's research director. Even though the recession ended more than three years ago, optimism hasn't returned for those workers, who "now realize they really are in a bad situation."

VanDerhei and financial planners said workers still can significantly improve their finances for retirement. They recommended finding ways to spend less and invest more, especially in employer-sponsored 401(k) plans or individual retirement accounts.

Retirement planning offers opportunities to think about what really matters, financial planners said. After devising a plan, some workers may decide to work part time well into their retirement years, while others may leave a job they hate, get retrained and stay longer at work they find more fulfilling.

"You have a lot more leverage than you think you have," said Bruce Dzieza, founder of Willow Creek Financial Services in Sebastopol.

Nearly six in 10 workers currently save for retirement, according to the survey released this month by the research institute. But even among workers 55 years of age and older, half said they have accumulated less than $50,000 in savings and investments, excluding home equity.

Many appear to be living without much of a financial cushion. Only half of those surveyed said they definitely could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month.

As a result, plenty of workers seem more preoccupied on paying today's bills than setting aside money for retirement.

A survey last fall by Wells Fargo reported that half of middle class workers in their 50s said they are too focused on current financial obligations to plan for the future.

Joe Ready, a director of the company's institutional retirement and trust division, said the message was: "I know I need to save more, but I really can't afford to do that."

Instead, more workers say they will keep drawing a paycheck well past the normal retirement age.

In 1991, only one in 10 workers told the research institute that they planned to work beyond 65. By this winter, that number had risen to one in three.

However, experts question whether so many workers actually can stay that long at their jobs.

For the past two decades, the median U.S. retirement age has remained steady at 62, the institute reported.

And nearly half the retirees surveyed this winter said they had stopped working earlier than planned. The biggest reason for early retirement was health problems or disability. Also mentioned was downsizing or other changes in the workplace. Seven percent left early for what the institute deemed were strictly positive reasons.

The institute has projected that roughly a fifth of Baby Boomers will run short of money within 10 years of retirement. As that happens, families, charities or the government will need to step in to help.

"That's going to be a tremendous burden on somebody," VanDerhei said.

Ready said three out of four workers surveyed by Wells Fargo acknowledged they essentially had guessed at the amount needed for retirement. Typically they underestimate two areas: how long they might live and what they might spend on health care.

The survey's median estimate for out-of-pocket health care costs was $47,000. Wells Fargo cited separate research that a typical couple at age 65 can expect to spend at least $260,000 for such costs over their remaining lifetime.

For those who want to set aside more for the future, the most-frequent recommendation was to take advantage of a 401k retirement plan, especially if an employer will match a portion of the worker's contributions.

Redwood Credit Union offered four more steps: Create an emergency fund of three to six months; start direct deposit savings for even a small portion of your paycheck; set some financial goals, such as buying a home, sending a child to college or retirement; and get advice from a financial professional.

Anne Benjamin, Redwood's executive vice president and chief operating officer, recommended workers start by talking to staff at their banks or credit unions and not try to "self-diagnose their own solutions."

For example, she said, some workers "think they're stuck with credit cards at really high rates, and they don't have to be."

Similarly, financial planners said they can help workers examine their finances and suggest ways to save and invest more.

Alice Sanford, who owns an Ameriprise office in Santa Rosa, said a 30-something couple once told her they couldn't cut their expenses. She asked them whether they could each purchase one latte a day instead of two. She calculated that investing the $300 saved each month at 6 percent interest would result in a total of $300,000 in 30 years.

"Einstein said the most magical formula on the planet is the compounding effect over time on money," Sanford observed.

Jean Davis and Greg Young are believers in financial planning.

The retired married couple who reside southwest of Windsor said living within their means was a value impressed upon them by parents who grew up during the Great Depression.

"I was always a saver," said Davis, 67, a retired career counselor at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Young, 70, started working in the 1960s for IBM (your smartphone has more computing power than the room-sized computers he worked with for the company at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, he said). After a stint at Safeway, Young joined Cerent, a Petaluma telecom startup that Cisco purchased in 1999 for $6.9 billion.

As with the other employees who owned Cerent stock, "I basically had a windfall and I didn't know what to do with it," he said. Young quickly interviewed several financial advisers and settled on Willow Creek's Bruce Dzieza for the personalized investment approach he put together.

Gilbert Hawkins, a financial adviser at CaliforniaHawk Wealth Management in Santa Rosa, called it important to interview a few different financial professionals before selecting one.

"You want to work with someone who gives you the feeling that person understands your situation," Hawkins said.

VanDerhei urged workers to stay at their jobs until they first meet with an expert who can make financial calculations and determine whether they have enough money to retire. If needed, he said, it's much easier to work a few more years, but "it becomes infinitely more difficult" to re-enter the work force in your 70s.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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