With two years of good performance from the financial markets, retirement savers should be a lot closer to getting back on track with their finances. Unfortunately, the financial crisis of 2008 and early 2009 has had a much bigger impact on retirement savings behavior than you might have thought -- and the result could be disastrous for investors of all ages.

Survey says
This year's edition of the Wells Fargo Retirement Survey has a lot of troubling news for wannabe retirees:

  • Among those ages 50 to 59, retirement savers predict that they'll need $300,000 for their retirement nest eggs, but the typical 50-something saver has just $29,000 set aside thus far. Wells Fargo estimates that $29,000 would produce about $190 per month for retirees -- far less than they'll need.
  • Those in their 20s, who could best benefit from being in the stock market the longest, are actually most likely to stay away from stocks. Having gotten burned by the financial crisis, young investors aren't in a hurry to put what's left at risk, opting for bank CDs and other low-return investments.
  • Retirement savers in their 40s are having the most difficulty adjusting to new economic realities. Those who are older are much more likely to have employer pension plans assisting them, but for middle-age and younger workers, the shift toward 401(k) plans and other defined contribution arrangements means the responsibility for saving is all on them, as they won't be getting any help from their employers after they retire.

In other words, just about everyone needs to take action in order to make sure they don't make a huge mistake with their retirement investing strategy. Otherwise, the weak foundation that they've started from could easily crumble beneath their feet.

The right answer for your retirement
Your age makes a huge difference in how you should invest for retirement. But no matter how old you are, the one thing you have in common with everyone else is the need to set as much money aside for savings as you can. With so many people woefully underfunded on their retirement accounts, you simply can't expect even the best investment returns to make up for not having enough money to invest.

For baby boomers approaching retirement, increasing savings is the most important way to improve your situation. If you have 10 years to go before you retire and have a shortfall similar to the one described above, aiming to save about $15,000 each year would go a long way toward closing the gap between the $29,000 you have and the $300,000 you think you need. That sounds like a lot to set aside, but if you can swing it, it allows you to stay relatively conservative with your investments.

That doesn't mean avoiding risk entirely, though. Owning some stocks is still essential. But fortunately, a number of promising stocks, from Ford Motor (NYSE: F) to AT&T (NYSE: T) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), trade at less than 10 times trailing earnings, putting a decent margin of safety beneath their current share prices. None of those companies is bulletproof -- Ford has recovered strongly but still faces stiff competition, AT&T will soon have to face competitors to its iPhone dominance, and ConocoPhillips has been restructuring to divest itself of massive amounts of assets. But despite their challenges, these stocks should give you a less bumpy ride than pricier stocks.

Playing for the long haul
Investors from 20 to 50 have some options that baby boomers don't have. Investing in growth stocks can help you improve your returns, if you're willing to accept the volatility. Some growth stocks never pan out the way you hope, but big winners can make up the difference. priceline.com (Nasdaq: PCLN), for instance, has taken the travel industry by storm, decimating its many online rivals and seeing its shares rise 1,650% over the past five years. Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS) was left for dead in 2008, but its big bets on Macau are paying off, and the stock has tripled in just the past year.

But no matter what age you are, if you're scared about stocks, sticking with stable dividend payers can help you gain your bearings while you wait. The dividend-stock ETFs Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (NYSE: VIG) and SPDR S&P Dividend (NYSE: SDY) both give investors broad exposure to stocks with healthy payouts from a wide range of different industries, with the resulting diversification helping to shelter you from big market moves. As you gain confidence, you can branch out into individual stocks that strike your fancy.

Don't give up
It's not too late to take steps toward shoring up your retirement. If you take action now, it may make the difference in giving you the retirement of your dreams.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger loves to dream the impossible dream. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Ford Motor and priceline.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy keeps the nightmares away.