If you work, sooner or later, you will retire. For more and more Americans, these days, it is becomming sooner. In fact, today's retirees are not only quitting work earlier, they are also living longer - which means that chunk of time often referred to as the "golden years" can involve a substantial numbers.

When the regular paychecks stop, will you have enough to keep you in style for maybe 20 or 30 more years? That's an important question.And the time to ask it is not when you turn 65 or even 60, advises Bob Weir, a financial planner with IDS Financial Services, Inc. Some say that planning for retirement should start with your first paycheck. Others advise at least no later than age 40.

Financial planning is just one part of planning for retirement, but it is a very important part - particularly in view of a couple of national trends.

There is always the question of how much Social Security will be there when you retire. Estimates range from everything to nothing. But with even the most optimistic analysts, there has been a gradual shifting of emphasis. People are simply going to have to take more responsibility for their own future, they say.

Couple that with the fact that Americans are not very good at saving - or are not able to save much due to other financial pressures. According to the United States Savings League, personal savings last year totaled only 4.8 percent of after-tax income.

So, what's a person to do?

START WITH A PLAN

The ability to live comfortably during retirement is based on discipline, says Weir. It's not how much you make, but what you do with what you have that counts.

"But when you retire, you don't want to just quit working. You want to do other things. You want financial independence."

The big concern is that you could be on a fixed income when you retire, while nothing remains fixed in the world about you.

Your retirement plan, says Weir, needs to take into account taxes, inflation and a budget as well as your overall financial situation.

Many planners estimate that you will need at least 60 to 70 percent of your annual working income just to maintain your current standard of living when you are retired. Medical costs are another area that needs to be provided for.

Once you have an idea of how much you might need, the next step is working out how to get it.

"One of the things we stress is balance," says Weir. "As you accumulate assets, you need to make sure that part of them are working for your future advantage. If you have monies in a retirement plan, balance it with investments in other places. Young people, especially, should not overlook the value of compound interest. It can add up over the years."

In planning for your future financial needs, you may want to consult a professional financial planner, a CPA, tax accountant or other professional.

A PERIODIC REVIEW

Once you have a plan in mind, you need to check it along the way to make sure it still meets your needs and that you are meeting the plan's requirements.

Answering the following questions may help:

What were my original investment goals? Maybe your initial investments were conservative, or maybe you accepted more risk and invested in speculative stock. But having tested the financial waters, you may now have a better understanding of your investment personality.

What are my investment goals today? Are you still looking for the same kinds of returns you were? An investment plan may follow a gentle curve. In early years, when assets are lower, you may want to be more conservative, take less risk. In middle years, you may be able to afford more risk in order to gain higher returns. But as you near retirement, you may again want to be conservative.

How has the investment environment changed? Interest rates fluxuate. Market uncertainty creeps in. Diversification plays a key role in reducing the impact of any single investment in your portfolio.

Has my personal financial situation changed? When you started investing for retirement, it may have been a struggle to make deposits. Now, you may want to shelter more and maximize the benefits of tax-deferred earnings.

WHEN RETIREMENT ARRIVES

When all the planning is done and the time comes to live on your retirement benefits, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, says Weir.

One is that you still need a budget and the discipline to live within it. The chart on this page shows how you can stretch our your nest egg over the next several years.

Another important consideration is in dealing with any lump-sum retirement settlement you might receive.

"I've seen too many people take this money and go out and spend it right away without realizing the tax consequences of the settlement."

You have four options for the settlement, he says:

1. You can take it as a lump-sum distribution. If you do, it is considered income, and you will have to pay income tax on it that year.

2. You can roll it into an IRA - particularly if you take early retirement. You have 60 days to do this if you desire.

3. If you qualify, you can take a five-year averaging on your income tax.

4. You can roll it into a qualifying plan of the company you work for.

Make sure the personnel department has explained these options and you know what will work best for you before you just take the money and run, says Weir. You may also want to consult a tax advisor or financial planner.