Nowhere do our spendthrift ways get us in more trouble than when it comes to retirement.

As a society, our tendency to spend every penny in our hot hands is so great that we have a national savings rate of between 3 percent and 4 percent of personal income - the most embarrassingly low total of any major industrial power.This consumption-driven way of life gets our national economy in trouble by starving our system of savings - the most productive source of capital for investments in new equipment and programs to build a more competitive economy, the kind that can produce the wealth we've grown accustomed to enjoying.

With insufficient national savings, we wind up either borrowing the money from ourselves (hello, federal deficits) or from foreigners (we are now the world's largest debtor nation).

On a personal level, our "spend today" mentality clearly works against the kinds of long-term planning and investment programs needed for a successful retirement. And unlike Uncle Sam, individuals can't simply continue to borrow to meet their financial needs after they've stopped bringing home regular paychecks.

There are signs, albeit belated, that people are starting to mend their ways. Much of this wisdom is probably of the forced variety. We are getting older as a nation, and the numbers of persons actively dealing with retirement issues is growing by millions each year. Besides being sensitized to these issues, we're also increasingly aware that growing life spans will create lengthy retirements for many of us.

Yet as the retirement years lengthen into the retirement decades, so does the need for money. Escalating costs for health care and housing have become twin threats to elderly people as well as object lessons to all of us about the need to shore up our retirement finances.

Lastly, as we discover the need for more money, we also are witnessing the weakening of the two strongest traditional sources of supplemental funding for retirement - the family structure and the federal government. Increasingly, elderly people find themselves with no relatives or with their family members either scattered across the country or consumed with their own financial needs.

Although the Social Security program now has a healthy funding surplus, that condition will erode as our aging society produces relatively more beneficiaries than contributors. Further, out-of-pocket costs to recipients of Medicare services seem destined to continue rising. And, in the long run, few people expect a favorable answer to the biggest question of all: Can a cost-conscious Congress stay away from cuts in Social Security benefits?

The cumulative effect of these social and economic trends is the sobering realization that the elderly are often on their own. And as tough as that can be under any conditions, imagine what it's like without a decent retirement program to at least provide financial support.

Fortunately, retirement planning for most people does not require fancy outside consultants or financial planners. It does require time. And, most importantly, it requires a commitment and a willingness to take responsibility for your own financial future.

If you have a serious personal financial plan, congratulations. You are far, far ahead of most people. Even if you have no extra money right now to invest, you can still benefit from a financial plan. Carve out some basic household budgeting goals, for example, and start setting aside funds or, if even that is too ambitious, create a timetable and a set of interim goals that will allow you to start an investment program down the road.

If you are 25 years old, do you need to plan for retirement? Yes, in a sense. Every dollar you put into a retirement savings plan today will be eight times as valuable as the dollar you put away 25 years from now.

One of the most impressive rule-of-thumb formulas I've ever seen is the one that calculates how long it will take a quantity to double if it's growing each year by a certain percentage. The rule says that if you divide a quantity's annual percentage growth rate into 72, the answer is the doubling time of that quantity.

So, if money is the quantity in question, and it's drawing interest at the rate of 8 percent a year, it will double in nine years (72 divided by 8 equals 9). After 18 years, it will have quadrupled and, in 27 years, it will be eight times its original size. If you were astute enough to earn 12 percent a year on your money, it would have a doubling time of only six years, meaning that in 30 years it would have increased by a factor of 32 - in effect earning a return of 100 percent on your original investment each year.

Even a moderate amount of inflation will cut deeply into the real gains in value that your money will make over the years. The kind of double-digit inflation we had in the 1970s can effectively wipe out a retirement fund.

So although the Federal Reserve Board may take a lot of heat for clamping down on inflationary forces in the economy and risking a recession in the process, most people are far better off going through a recession than trying to cope with the devastating, long-term consequences of several years of high rates of inflation.

Applied to the examples of our doubling rule, the presence of inflation makes achieving a good return on your retirement funds that much more important. More to the point, even a single percentage point difference, say 8 percent a year instead of 7 percent, will mean a great deal over the longer time frames that come into play in retirement investing.

This doesn't mean you should adopt a risky investment posture seeking the highest possible return on your money. It does mean that you would be using your time to great advantage by carefully comparing the range of quite safe retirement investment alternatives. For instance, you should be able to do better than bank rates on certificates of deposit. You will, however, have to work at it. (And you should keep some money in ultra-safe, liquid accounts anyway, to make sure you have the flexibility to meet emergency needs for funds.)

For those who do want to play the game seriously, there really are only two parts to a retirement plan - what do I need and what will I have? Neither exists independent of the other, of course. Even the richest person ultimately encounters limits that force him or her to alter spending plans. Likewise, your ideal retirement scenario may require frequent readjustments as you approach retirement. That's fine.

But be sure to begin your planning process with a hard-nosed assessment of what you'll need to live on when you retire. Some experts say to assume that normal retirement living expenses will be 20 percent to 40 percent less than living expenses during a person's later working years. That's because of less money for work clothes, transportation, lunches and other assorted work-related expenses. But the figure obviously varies by individual.

To this normal expense, you should add any new costs associated with your desired lifestyle in retirement. Leisure-time activities aren't free. You probably will want to travel more, even if it's just to spend that time with family and friends as you were always promising.

Also, while it may not be pleasant, you owe it to yourself and, for couples, to your spouse, to engage in some worst-case planning about your future. Remember, this is for planning.

Assume you will live a long time, at least 20 years, into your retirement. Don't plan on needing funds only until you're 75 years old. Take a longer view and give yourself the chance to enjoy those years.

Further, assume you will have poor health for much of this period. Now how much money will you need in retirement? What does supplemental health insurance cost? Medicines? Specialized long-term care?

Hopefully, you'll never need to spend these funds because your health will hold up. If so, great. Leave the money to your heirs or take a trip to Monte Carlo to celebrate your 90th birthday. But if you don't have these resources and do encounter health problems, you may lose not only your health in your later years but also any sense of material enjoyment.

Lastly, consider your estate preferences in determining how much money you need in retirement. Is it important to pass on assets to your children, grandchildren, other heirs or charitable organizations? If so, you will want to plan your living needs to preserve these assets and not eat into them.

At this point, depending on your age, you might be advised to seek professional legal and tax assistance. (Regardless of age, you should already have a will.) Is there an easy way to do this? I've always followed employment-related or personal leads, talking with people at work or friends to track down potential sources of help or at least referrals. You can check out reputations with local or state professional organizations, but you'll probably be depending most on word-of-mouth assessments.

When you do talk with a professional, don't be embarrassed. Ask him or her about fees, and make sure your needs are suited to the service being provided. To do this, you'll need to be forthcoming about your own financial situation.