Even though it seems as if the worst of the recession's economic blow is behind us, Americans are far from feeling confident about paying for retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute's (EBRI) annual retirement confidence survey.

Only about 16% of the workers surveyed say that they feel very confident about having enough money saved for a comfortable retirement, while another 38% say they are somewhat confident, and 22% aren't confident at all.

If you break down the data a bit further, though, an interesting trend emerges among the survey's participants regarding saving and investing – gender differences. The study found that men were more confident about their ability to afford and plan for retirement than women. The men in the study were more likely to think that they're thoroughly prepared and have enough money to live comfortably throughout their golden years.

There are plenty of studies that find men to be more confident investors. In fact, they're very often over-confident. A recent study by mutual fund company Vanguard analyzed 2.7 million people who held IRAs during 2008 and 2009 and found that men were more likely to sell investments at lows, resulting in big losses.

"Women have a tendency to take less severe positions. They don't bet the farm on company stock or do things that financial professionals would tell you are not in your best interest. And if you just want to look at equity concentration, everything else equal, females would typically be much less allocated to equities," says Jack VanDerhei, research director at EBRI.

When it comes to investing, you have to strike a balance between confidence and caution. If you're overly confident, you run the risk of not saving enough, or taking so much risk so late in the game that you don't have enough time to recover. If you're not confident enough, you'll likely invest too conservatively, so your money doesn't grow or, worse case scenario, you fall victim to inflation. Here's how to keep yourself in check:
  • Plan. Carefully outline your retirement goals. That means running some numbers to estimate how much you need to save. There are various tools to help you do it, but I've always recommended EBRI's Ballpark E$timate because it's so easy to use.
  • Set rules. In general, the fewer choices you make, the more success you're likely to see over the long haul. Decide how much you're going to contribute to your retirement account each month, and only change that amount if you get a raise and you're not already on track to hit your savings goal. Then, decide what percentage of your money you'll have in stocks (for help on how to set your asset allocation, see this post I wrote a few weeks ago). If the market goes up and you go over that percentage, or it goes down and you're suddenly too conservative, rebalance your portfolio so you're back on track.
  • Be flexible. I know – I just told you to set rules and stick to them. But what I'm talking about here is your time horizon. EBRI's study found that 28% of women and 27% of men have changed their expected retirement age in the last twelve months. It happens, and keeping things flexible from the start certainly softens the blow. Working longer, even if it's just a year or two, is one of the best ways to make up for a gap in your retirement savings, because not only do you delay tapping into that money, but you continue contributing to your balance.

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