11/15/2011 10:36 am ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

Good Intentions Won't Fund Your Retirement

There's never a shortage of stories about how too many Americans are financially irresponsible. We carry too much debt. We don't save enough. Our need for instant gratification drives our investment strategies. The list goes on and on.

Some of this narrative is justified, of course. But a new survey from ING Direct provides a more complex picture of how Americans actually think about finances. On the whole, they're actually much more committed to long-term financial planning than is typically appreciated. Americans do genuinely value regularly saving and investing.

The problem is that those intentions often don't translate into action. The average American family carries around too much debt and isn't saving enough, either for mid-life expenses like college tuition for their children, or long-term expenses like retirement.

The challenge for this country is to close that gap between thought and action. Fortunately, there are some easy steps that savers can take today to set themselves on the course for long-term prosperity.

First, re-adjust your 401(k) and IRA contributions as your salary changes. 401(k)s are a particularly powerful savings tool. Employers typically match several thousand dollars of the account holder's contributions.

One of the most jarring stats from our survey is that 55 percent of respondents who were contributing to a retirement plan said they aren't putting enough away. In other words, over half are knowingly not socking away enough money to ensure a happy and stable retirement.

The worst way to think about your 401(k) contributions is to simply plan on allocating whatever is left over from your salary at the end of the year. If you have some extra money in your bank account, it's incredibly easy to come up with new, short-term "must-have" purchases.

As your salary rises, your priority should be contributing as much as you can toward the maximum that's allowed under law -- $16,500 annually, and set to rise to $17,000 in 2012. At the least, hit the total your employer will match. If you don't, you're leaving free money on the table every year.

Make retirement savings your top goal; don't wait until the end of the year. Contribute the max and then -- and only then -- consider luxury purchases. Your 65-year-old self will thank you.

Second, don't forget your 401(k) if you switch jobs. Too often, workers just leave that money to lay in waste and don't transfer it over to their new 401(k) or roll it over into an IRA. The rollover process is fairly simple -- and keeping your accounts consolidated makes managing them that much easier.

Third, start saving now. Of course it's completely natural at a young age to see retirement as a distant obligation; it's really is hard to muster up the financial self-discipline to save for something that seems so far away. But, a staggering 83 percent of our survey respondents said they wished they started saving for retirement in their 20s or earlier. For those of you at the dawn of your careers, start saving now.

The story that you can make up for not saving early in life by pulling down a higher salary later on is just not true. The longer you wait, the more growth you'll potentially miss out on. A dollar saved for retirement at 24 is simply more valuable than one saved at 44. Give even a small amount of money four or five decades to grow, and it will turn into a substantial chunk of change. Again, your 65 year old self will thank you.

Finally, to close that gap between financial aspirations and actions, commit yourself to not deferring retirement savings to pay for another need. Some financial turmoil is inevitable, but paying for genuine luxuries like a vacation shouldn't come at the expense of vital retirement savings. Learn to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary expenses -- and cut away at the latter for sake of your future.

Most Americans want to save. Most know they should. And most wish they'd started saving at a younger age. If you find yourself in this boat, these are some simple steps you can take to turn your healthy financial aspirations into action.