By Jean C. Setzfand, vice president of the Financial Security team in the Education and Outreach group at AARPJean Setzfand, Vice President, Financial Security, AARP Education & Outreach

If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, surely you remember the Cheshire Cat’s advice to Alice, who asked for directions to nowhere in particular. “”That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replied the cat.

You’re sure to get somewhere, if you only walk long enough.

It turns out, too many Americans are applying that kind of thinking to retirement: they’re putting off the most rudimentary financial planning, neglecting to save, and vaguely planning to work longer – without knowing whether that’s a realistic goal.

Or at least that’s how I read the results of the latest Retirement Confidence Survey put out by the Washington-based Employee Benefit Research Institute. It’s an annual survey measuring workers’ and retirees’ confidence about their financial security in retirement, and this is the 23rd year the organization has been conducting the survey.

Back in 1995, only 27 percent of respondents said they were not particularly confident that they would have enough money to live comfortably throughout retirement. This year, nearly half of all respondents expressed this fear.

Debt, cost of living and job uncertainties all feed this fear, according to the survey, but here’s something else that doesn’t exactly instill confidence: A whopping 54 percent of respondents haven’t even tried to figure out how much money they’ll need to save to live comfortably in retirement.

They didn’t sit down and do their own estimate (like 18 percent of all respondents did). Nor did they use a financial advisor, like another 18 percent did. They didn’t even use an online calculator, as just 8 percent did.

For the most part, they just guessed.

Of course not everyone can afford to use a financial advisor. In fact, there are some legitimate conflict-of-interest reasons to question investment advice rendered by a professional. But many trusted organizations, like AARP, offer absolutely free tools and resources to help you figure it all out.

  • Identify what your estimated expenses will be while you’re retired and how much money you’ll need to save to meet those expenses.
  • Look at your Social Security benefits and decide when you’re going to claim – the longer you wait, the bigger your benefit will be for you and your surviving spouse.
  • Create budgets – you need a current budget to help you minimize expenses and maximize savings now, and a retirement budget to make your assets last as long as you do.
  • You may well want to work longer – or start your own business – but you can’t necessarily count on working longer later as the remedy for not saving enough now. The Retirement Confidence Survey regularly finds that nearly half of us end up retiring earlier than planned, often because of health problems, ailing family members or because the ground shifted at work.

For me, the take-away is this: Figure out your destination now – or buy a comfortable pair of shoes and settle in for a nice long walk.

Jean C. Setzfand is vice president of the Financial Security team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She leads AARP’s educational and outreach efforts aimed at helping Americans achieve financial ‘peace of mind’ in retirement. She can be reached at jsetzfand@aarp.org or on Twitter at @JSetz.