There's simply no escaping it: The financial collapse of 2008 and the current near-zero interest rate environment have changed the investing landscape, and unfortunately, too many people near retirement age are taking all the wrong steps when it comes to getting back on track. Despite having less money, fewer pension opportunities, and a malfunctioning Social Security system, people are still shockingly confident about their futures.

Let me provide you with three simple steps that I think could greatly improve your chances of a comfortable retirement.

Simple steps you don't have to pay for

  1. Save more money. Although this seems like the most rudimentary of tasks, not enough people take this easy advice. With dwindling options for pensions, retirees can't depend on Social Security like they used to. The 2010 federal deficit was $1.3 trillion, the second-highest in terms of percentage of GDP in more than 60 years, and this year was the second in a row where Social Security payments didn't get a cost-of-living boost. (Today, I opened my mom's mail from the government -- no increase in her payments, only an increase in what she owed for Medicare.) What's worse is that a recent Wells Fargo retirement survey found that 72% of middle-class Americans ages 25 to 69 expect to work through their golden years. Mostly this is because the average respondent in the survey (ages 50-59) had saved only $29,000. This is obviously nowhere near enough. The bottom line is that you need to save more, and you need to start today. No amount is too small, so stop procrastinating and put away as much as you can.

  2. Don't be afraid to take some risk. If you're like the majority of people, you probably don't have enough saved. That means you need money in the stock market, and it can't all be locked in defensive stocks or big blue chips. Allocate a small amount of your portfolio to small caps or international stocks, places where, if you invest wisely, you can see larger gains than if you stick to the S&P 500 or to more traditional companies. For instance, Sirius XM (Nasdaq: SIRI) and Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS) have brought gains of around 150% and 200%, respectively, over the past year. Both companies had their fare share of naysayers and had to overcome enormous obstacles, but those who took the risk were well-rewarded. I'm not saying to go out and buy these companies today; Sirius has a competitive landscape and a heavy balance sheet, and Las Vegas Sands certainly carries a hefty price tag. But maybe check out small-cap Gaming Partners (Nasdaq: GPIC), a company that has a reasonable P/E of 9.9 and should benefit from an eventual resurgence in gambling; or Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), a safe company that has tons of exposure to emerging markets. Our own Global Gains advisor Tim Hanson thinks it's the best way to gain international presence for 2011.

  3. Invest in dividend-paying stocks. There's simply no overstating the importance of stocks that pay dividends. They give investors a chance to earn income (which will help them pay bills and stay liquid) while also providing the potential for capital appreciation. In the portfolio that I manage for my mom, who is 65, I have about 80% of her stock allocation in dividend stocks. Three that I happen to really like are Waste Management (NYSE: WM), Sasol (NYSE: SSL), and Exelon (NYSE: EXC). All three pay dividends of 3.5% or more and are inherently defensive in their nature. Stocks like Exelon and Sasol have the ability to jump up as well because of their ties to oil and natural gas. Or, if you're looking for broader diversification, check out the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF, which includes many of the S&P dividend aristocrats.

It's easier than you think
Only one-third of respondents in the Wells Fargo survey said they had a written retirement plan, an awful statistic to consider when we imagine how many people don't have nearly enough for the retirement they've always dreamed of.

But getting back on track is easier than you think. Take a pencil to some paper and outline how you can save a bit more money each month, even if it's just $50 or $100; look at the savings you have and start to take some calculated risks like the ones mentioned above; and put the rest of your stock allocation toward dividend-paying stocks.

If you have questions about retirement or how you can get started, please feel free to leave a comment below. Even better, get started today by taking advantage of The Motley Fool's new free report, "The 7 Secrets To Salvage Your Retirement Today." Click here to make sure you can have the retirement you've always imagined.

Jordan DiPietro owns shares of Waste Management, Sasol, and Exelon. Exelon, Waste Management, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. Sasol and Waste Management are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Exelon and writing a covered straddle position on Waste Management. The Fool owns shares of Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo. 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 Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.