Do you expect to live a life of leisure in retirement? If so, you're in the minority.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute says that confidence in the "retirement" concept hit an all-time low this year. Asked to rate their chances of having "enough money to live comfortably in retirement," only 13% of workers responded that they are "very confident."

Even those very confident folks may be overstating their chances.

Get real, America
How do I know this? Because among workers who have saved exactly zero for retirement, 31% remain at least somewhat confident that they'll somehow have a comfortable retirement. But here are the facts:

  • Of all workers polled, 59% believe that in addition to Social Security and pension income, they still need to save at least $250,000 to retire comfortably.
  • And they're probably right. Among workers who have prepared detailed estimates of their needs in retirement -- and not all of us have -- 63% come up with $250,000 or more.
  • Yet among workers aged 55 or older, only 26% have actually saved the necessary $250,000.
  • What's more, $250,000 is lowball. You know that better-informed group of workers? The ones who did the math? Well, 48% of them concluded they need at least $500,000 to retire. For nearly 1 in 4, a cool million is what they require ... to retire.

A million?!
Yes. Or more.

So you'll understand why I'm unimpressed by reports that Americans are now saving a whopping 6.9% of their annual income. Considering that the annual household income averages $50,200, 6.9% savings works out to $3,464 per year. At this rate, it will take just less than 289 years for the average American home to save up a million bucks.

Oh, come on!
All right. I admit that I said that for shock value. But the truth is almost as painful. However, retirement calculators like the one we host over at Rule Your Retirement can show you ways to improve your future. For instance, you can shave a couple of centuries off your retirement with the following assumptions:

  • First, that you can find a bank paying 1% interest on your deposits (mine won't).
  • Second, that your salary increases at a constant rate of, say, 3% per year, and you continue saving 6.9% of your take (no matter how big it gets, Moneybags.)

If you can abide by both of these strictures, then saving 6.9% of your income will net you a cool $1 million in retirement savings after ... (drumroll, please) ... 70 years of toil. Which brings me back to the title of this column: Your chances of retiring based even on the new-and-improved savings rate are not slim-to-none, but none-to-none.

Unless ...
You didn't think I'd end this column on such a pessimistic note, did you? Of course not. Here at the Fool, hope springs eternal. There are, in fact, several things you can do to improve your chances of retiring before the 22nd century begins.

  • First and foremost, you need to save more. (But you'd already guessed that.) Don't get me wrong -- 6.9% is a huge improvement over our negative savings rates of recent years. But it's only a start.
  • Second, you need to improve the rate at which your savings grow. A bank account won't do the trick. Neither will CDs -- they're hardly yielding more than savings accounts these days.

Where can you grow money faster? The stock market.

Don't panic
Now, I know how spooked everyone is about stocks right now. The market's down about 40% from its high, and that's scary. But in all honesty, I don't see any alternative. If you want to make it from zero to $1 million, stocks are the way to do it. The numbers just don't work any other way.

The good news is that there are all sorts of stocks to choose from. Adventurous investors can buy rocket stocks like Sirius XM (NASDAQ:SIRI), Trina Solar (NYSE:TSL), or Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), all of which have doubled this year. But such high-flyers are the ones most subject to sudden crashes -- and could set your retirement back years.

Fortunately, they're not the only way to go. To the contrary, I believe you can earn better returns over the long run, and limit your risks, by investing in high-quality profit generators selling for discount prices. In a recent column, "7 Steps to Investing Success," I demonstrated how to use a stock screener and a few basic, free tools found on the Web to dig up such potential investments. And I named names: China Mobile (NYSE:CHL), Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL), (NASDAQ:PCLN), and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).

It's time to wise up, and ...
So let's assume you take the plunge. I think you can do better than the market's historical 10.5% average rate by buying high-quality bargains like those named above. But let's assume 10.5% to be safe. Tack on another 3% for annual wage increases. And bump up your savings rate to 20% (we're still assuming you make the average wage of $50,200, remember).

These assumptions will take you from zero to $1 million in just 22 years.

... it's time to get moving.
But first, you have to start. Time's a-wasting, Fool. And the clock, she is a-ticking. Sign up for Rule Your Retirement now, and we'll give you 30 days to examine our advice and determine whether it's to your liking. Don't like it? Cancel, and we won't charge you a dime. You have our word on it.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Apple and are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.