Many of us have our heads buried in the sand when it comes to life after work. While we're confident of financial security in retirement, we're not doing a lot to make that happen.

Instead, in recent years, we've watched employers such as Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), and GM (NYSE:GM) scale back on or transfer responsibility for retiree health benefits. Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) stopped offering those benefits to new workers. Other employers, such as IBM (NYSE:IBM), Alcoa (NYSE:AA), and Citigroup (NYSE:C), have frozen pension benefits.

Think it won't happen to you? Maybe it already has. Maybe you never had a job that promised those benefits in the first place.

Do it yourself
So instead of expecting someone else to take care of you in retirement, take control of your own destiny.

  • Start now. There's no use worrying that you haven't gotten started yet. Now's not the time to procrastinate. The longer you let your savings pile up for retirement, the more opportunity you give that money to grow. The longer you put off the task, the more time you lose. Resist the urge to have the perfect plan in place before getting started. Just jump in. Doing something will almost always be better than doing nothing.
  • Choose your weapons. Uncle Sam generously gives workers a number of ways to avoid taxes while saving for retirement. You'd almost think he wants you to retire as much as you do! The first place to look for a good retirement savings vehicle is at work. If your company offers a 401(k) savings plan, or a similar program allowing you to set aside some of your salary for retirement, take a close look. What are you looking for? Free money. Make it your first retirement task to snatch up any matching contribution your employer makes when you save yourself.

    Once you've grabbed all of the matching benefits on the table, it's time to look a little further. If you like your 401(k) plan, keep stashing money into it. If you want to explore your options, it's time to look into IRAs. There's nothing to stop you from saving in more than one place and in more than one way. Want to pay your taxes now and get it over with? Look into a Roth IRA, which you can fill with after-tax money but avoid taxes in the future. Think you're better off waiting to send that check to Uncle Sam? A traditional IRA, like your 401(k), offers that option.
  • Pick your investments. Sounds easy so far, but what do you do with all of that money you're putting away? If you're saving through a 401(k) plan, your savings program will have something to say about that. You'll probably be given a list of options. If you save through an IRA instead, you'll have almost every option on the table. Don't let all of this choice boggle your mind!

    If you're an investment beginner, consider saving your money in an index fund that tracks the performance of the stock market. Index funds offer instant diversification by spreading your money across hundreds of companies. Choose the right one, and you'll also keep your investment costs nice and low. Check out this 60-Second Guide to Index Investing for a quick and dirty lesson.
  • Estimate your retirement needs. Wondering why this isn't the first thing on your retirement to-do list? Frankly, it's not easy, and it's more important to start getting money in the bank. But now that you've done that, it's time to start figuring out how much you'll need. Then, when the pollsters start calling, you can say you're confident in your financial security.

    Retirement planners have developed a number of rules of thumb. Some suggest you should aim to replace 70% to 80% of your annual income in retirement. Others say you'll need at least 10 times your annual earnings socked away. What will retirement cost you? You can get some help in the planning department from the Retirement Center.

That's retirement planning in a nutshell. Consider it a jump-start for ensuring your future happiness and prosperity. Now that you have the basics, to get more expert advice on mastering savings strategies, investment plans, and retirement calculations, check out the Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. You'll find useful advice on how to put together the best retirement plan for you. Take a look today with our free trial.

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This article, written by Mary Dalrymple, was originally published on April 17, 2007. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a completely confident disclosure policy.