Halloween isn't very close, but I'm scared already. I just read a frightening news report at workforce.com. It seems that "As the economy continues to sour, employees may soon find their 401(k) matches are the next casualty."

Yikes!

Traditionally, American workers toiled for decades in order to retire comfortably with a pension. Well, times have changed. In recent years, defined benefit plans (such as pensions, where the amount of your future benefits are known) have given way to defined contribution plans, where only the sum you contribute to the account is known. It remains to be seen what that amount will ultimately grow to by the time you retire. By switching from the former to the latter plans, companies have reaped massive financial benefits. They're suddenly off the hook regarding future obligations to many or all retirees. In exchange for this liberation, they've typically offered to match employee contributions, up to set amounts.

We've long urged Fools to take advantage of any company matching funds available, because it's free money. It's there for the taking, if you just do what you should do anyway: save and invest for your retirement.

Well, these matching funds may be going the way of the saber-toothed tiger, it seems. In order to save even more money (shareholders may now rejoice), some companies (particularly those that are really struggling) may eliminate their matching (employees may now boo). According to workforce.com, "In the last market downturn, in 2001-02, companies hit hardest -- such as Ford Motor (NYSE:F) and Bethlehem Steel -- suspended their 401(k) matches to save money."

This is just the latest challenge facing future retirees. Many companies like Citigroup (NYSE:C), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), and Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) have frozen all or part of their traditional pension plans (or are slated to do so).

It might be smart not to count on receiving much in retirement other than what you save and invest on your own. So don't put off taking action. Learn much more in our 401(k) guide and our IRA Center. For detailed guidance on retirement planning, test-drive, for free, our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. A free trial will give you full access to all past issues. It regularly offers recommendations of promising stocks and mutual funds, too.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Dow Chemical is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.