The plummeting stock market has put a crimp in many people's plans for retirement. But if you don't want to rely on a rebound in stocks to guarantee a comfortable retirement, you're not powerless -- you just need to take strong action now.

Healthy investing returns can turn modest savings into riches over time. But when high returns are next to impossible to find, it's helpful to do a gut-check to see where you stand without help from the stock market. You might be surprised to find just how far you can go, simply by tightening your belt and increasing your savings.

Pay yourself twice
Trying to find ways to cut back on expenses takes a lot more work than simply putting money into a brokerage account and letting a rising stock market work its magic on your portfolio. But economizing gives you much more than a one-time benefit -- month in and month out, learning to live on less means you'll have more money to put toward future expenses.

Consider: If you earn $5,000 a month and spend almost all of it, you're not really getting ahead at all. You're almost entirely dependent on your job -- and vulnerable to layoffs and the whims of the labor market.

But if you cut your expenses by $500 a month, you've uncovered a gold mine. Over the years, that money will directly add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of extra dollars for your retirement.

That's not the only benefit, though. If you can live well spending $4,500 instead of $5,000, you've also reduced the amount you'll need to retire comfortably by 10%. So not only will you have more money saved, but you'll also have a lower threshold to measure your eventual success in accumulating enough money to retire well.

Allocating assets
If you can save more, you won't need to earn as high an average rate of return in order to reach your savings target.

Consider an easy example. If you have 30 years before retirement and expect to earn an 8% rate of return, putting away $675 each month would be enough to get you to $1 million by the time you retire. But if you're able to save an extra $500 each month, the rate of return you need to be a millionaire in retirement drops substantially -- all the way to around 5.25%.

That lower threshold opens the door to a host of possible investment options. No-risk investments like CDs and Treasuries won't get you there. Right now, though, you can get corporate bonds that yield roughly 5%. Plenty of blue-chip dividend stocks, such as American Express (NYSE:AXP) and Merck (NYSE:MRK), will pay you that much in dividends alone.

Moreover, even if the bear market has made you leery of losing money on stocks, there are plenty of good companies that have returned at least 5% or more per year in the long term. Even when you consider 10-year returns -- a period that started near the highs of the tech boom and has provided some of the worst performance in history -- you'll find lots of well-known names that managed to provide 5% returns. Below are some that have done so while showing somewhat less volatility than the market, as measured by beta:

Stock

10-Year Average Return

Beta

United Technologies (NYSE:UTX)

5.1%

0.90

Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL)

5.1%

0.57

Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFMI)

6.2%

0.94

Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN)

5.8%

0.23

Nike (NYSE:NKE)

6.2%

0.76

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Don't give up
At times like this, you might feel like you need some help. The subscribers to the Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter include thousands of people just like you who've struggled to find ways to make their savings and investments go further. Subscribers don't just get useful tips from Fool retirement expert Robert Brokamp -- they also learn from the experiences of their peers.

It's easy to become a subscriber without breaking your budget. We'll even let you try out Rule Your Retirement free of charge for 30 days, so you can see for yourself how it can help you.

Even when the market isn't cooperating with your hopes and dreams for a happy retirement, you're not powerless. By taking action now, you can get yourself back on the road to a prosperous retirement.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger still thinks he'll be able to retire well if he's fortunate. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy always works for you.