"Gone but not forgotten" epitaphs are being written these days for many hot investment ideas of the 1980s.

But in the case of individual retirement accounts, a more fitting description might be "forgotten but not gone."Many people with personal finances to manage - and quite a few of the professionals who advise them - put the idea of IRA contributions out of their minds as the tax laws changed in the past several years.

The new rules did indeed reduce the tax incentives available to higher-income IRA savers. Contrary to popular impression, however, they did not shut the door entirely for anyone.

"Few investments are shrouded in more misunderstanding and outright mythology than the individual retirement account," says Paul Merriman, a Seattle investment adviser who specializes in mutual funds.

IRAs boomed in this country starting in 1982, when the right to make tax-deductible contributions up to a maximum of $2,000 a year was extended to anyone with income from a job.

Enthusiasm for these accounts cooled five years later, after Congress decided to limit the up-front tax break in cases where workers had access to other pension-accumulation plans.

Today, single people earning $25,000 or more and married couples with incomes of $40,000 and up get only a partial deduction for their contributions.

The deduction was eliminated altogether for singles bringing home more than $35,000 and couples at $50,000 and beyond.

But these people can still make non-deductible contributions, Merriman notes, "and enjoy the incredible power of tax-deferred compounding of interest. In the long run, this is a far more important benefit than tax deductibility."

Furthermore, many workers - including anyone without other pension coverage - still qualify for deductions on their contributions. "Four out of five households can still deduct all or some part," points out the investment firm of Prescott, Ball & Turben.

Because of rules intended to discourage early withdrawals from IRAs, financial advisers say, misconceptions also abound about the accessibility of money reposing in an IRA.

A 10 percent penalty tax on withdrawals before age 591/2 makes it somewhat costly - but by no means impossible - to tap an IRA for emergency funds.

The penalty can be avoided altogether if you withdraw money according to a set schedule over a period of years, as specified in the rules.

Once they reach age 591/2, many workers may find contributing and withdrawing funds from an IRA an especially flexible aid in managing their money.

Merriman says IRAs are well worth considering even for people whose first-and-foremost savings goal is college tuition for their children.

"There are good reasons for doing so," he says. "First, your child may not need the money. He or she may not attend college or may win a scholarship.

"Second, you may surprise yourself and earn enough that you can fund educational expenses without dipping into this protected account.

"Third, even if you have to dip, you'll find that because of your IRA's tax-deferred earning power, you'll have more money left even after paying taxes and the 10 percent penalty than you would with the earnings from a taxable investment."