Start early. Save often.

Such are the keys to successfully saving for retirement. But it's not the size of your brokerage account balance that matters, it's the length of time that you spend building it.

Sure, it's true that the bigger your nest egg, the better off you'll be. But preparedness actually contributes more to peace of mind than net worth. Those who start socking it away early are most likely to report that they are happy with their retirement savings status, according to a survey sponsored by AIG Sun America.

So what constitutes "early"? It seems that 24 years of preparation is the defining number that separates those who are content with their retirement savings status from those who are not. The least-happy retirees, according to the study, had been saving an average of 11 years. So starting your savings regimen before age 40 can do wonders for your senior citizen psyche.

We'll venture to guess that establishing a pattern of saving -- instead of scrambling to do so at the last minute -- helps put money in perspective. Those who have fashioned a nest egg during good times and bad know that a market downturn doesn't mean the end of the world for their retirement dreams.

But when retirement is a distant goal, how do you motivate yourself to start a savings habit? Crunching a few numbers is a good place to start. And if you're the type of person who is motivated by a tight deadline, you still have one day to make your 2003 IRA contribution.