Retirement, as it appears in dreams, often features a move to a sunny clime for long days of golf on Hilton Head or a beach cabana in the Cayman Islands. But retirement, as it appears in reality, finds many Americans barely able to afford a week at the beach let alone a resort retreat.

Without early planning and disciplined saving, the pension that is supposed to be the golden egg that pays for the golden years can turn out to be substantially less than expected.

In recent years, the expectation that almost every American worker will have a company pension, Social Security and a tidy pile of savings to pick up where the paycheck left off has grown less certain -- and often less lucrative -- as a result of demographic factors, tax changes, corporate takeovers, bankruptcies and the cashing out of surplus pension benefits by some 1,400 companies in the last seven years.

"People need to take some responsibility for their own future and not depend on the system to provide them with a life style they are comfortable with," said David Farrington, vice president and McLean branch manager for Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.

Indeed, "the system," to the extent that it ever could be depended upon, is changing to make the passive approach to pension planning much riskier.

Though recently enacted tax law legislation will shorten the time it takes to vest, or have a right to pension benefits, the tendency of younger American workers to change jobs frequently as a way to snare promotions continues to endanger pensions.

The recent plunges in the stock market, which shook the worldwide investment community, also threw a curve to workers who had part or all of their retirement bundle tied up in equities. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reported that between the stock market's high last August and the bottom of the crash on Oct. 19, about $174 billion was lost in equities invested in private pension plans.

Although almost 53 million Americans are covered by employe-sponsored pensions in the private and public sector, there are vast differences in how those plans work and what they eventually provide in retirement.

For example, the most common kind of pension offered by companies, which guarantees a set benefit upon retirement, usually is geared toward long-term, higher-paid employes who may have spent an entire career with a single company. With the number of times younger workers can be expected to change jobs, the value of such a pension is not as secure.

"My advice always has been for people to save on a regular plan, use pension plans to the maximum and compare pension plans when job shopping," said Edward P. Wilson, president of Financial Services Advisory Inc. in Silver Spring. "It's necessary to worry about it in your late 30s to even have a shot at it."

Veterinarian V. Wayne Kimble, 47, who put himself on a budget back in college, probably could be considered a retirement planner's dream.

Though Arlington Animal Hospital, where he is a partner, does not have a pension plan, he has managed to save 10 to 15 percent of his income over the years and to diversify his investments into real estate, an individual retirement account and a money market fund.

"I don't want all my eggs in one basket," said Kimble, who is divorced and has two grown children. "I save every year and I'm a penny pincher."

What he hopes his pinching will pay off on is a retirement home near the Gulf of Mexico, in Florida or on the West Coast.

Kimble, however, is more the exception than the rule. Many people panic rather than plan their way into retirement.

Research by EBRI and the American Association of Retired Persons showed that most older workers delay financial and retirement planning until age 50 or later when it's almost impossible to build a big nest egg. To make matters worse, most lacked working knowledge of their pension provisions and some made serious miscalculations on what their retirement income would be.

"It's up to the individual to do it for himself," said David Even Morse, author of "Retire Rich!" "Many are unaware of the predicament they will find themselves in," Morse said.

Much of the problem is that younger workers often are wrapped up in day-to-day cares such as paying bills, buying a house and worrying about financing college educations. Many also simply lack the resolve to keep retirement savings sacrosanct, regardless of what their needs are or what external factors are pressing -- such as the recent crash in the market.

So the first golden rule of a golden nest egg is to begin saving. "Hide your raise from yourself. Pay yourself first and save a certain percentage right off the bat," suggested Morse. Saving 10 percent of gross income is a simple rule of thumb often used.

The importance of taking that first step is proven in the daunting challenge of building a foundation to retire upon. Lawrence A. Krause, author of "Sleep-Tight Money," estimated that you may need to come up with 75 percent to 80 percent of your preretirement income, not including inflation, to provide a sturdy foundation for the day when the regular paycheck stops.

To build that foundation, financial planner Wilson generally suggested utilizing the company retirement plan to the fullest, making maximum annual contributions to an individual retirement account, and then investing savings in a variety of financial instruments.

Morse, who also is an attorney and an accountant, advised that owning a home is essential because it will give you equity to draw on in retirement.

When you finally get to the investing stage -- and an increasing number of employes with corporate plans are being asked to take some responsibility for pension decisions -- the key is to diversify. A mix of stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, money market accounts, mutual funds and insurance plans are recommended by most financial analysts.

"They should stick with their allocation through the ups and downs," said Dallas Salisbury, EBRI president, "rather than be pulled into the traditional pattern of the small investor, which is to sell low and buy high."

If you can steel yourself against being swept away by the ups and downs of the stock market, the best possible long-term returns are still to found in equities.

"If you just park your money, you will get reasonable returns," said Bonnie Newton, assistant director of education for EBRI. "But you shouldn't be in the market if you are close to retiring."

For the majority of participants in plans where they are promised a specific benefit upon retirement -- so called defined benefit plans -- the Oct. 19 collapse of the market should have had no effect on their actual pension. The employers sponsoring these plans, however, may have to make larger contributions, shift investments or wait for the market to improve to cover their losses.

Investing in equities can be risky for workers who are responsible for managing all or part of their pension. In salary reduction plans such as 401(k) plans, employes often are given a variety of investment choices that can include equities or mutual funds. Those that recently shifted into the market may have taken losses.

"People have not yet realized that their savings are subject to the same crashing and thrashing as everything else in the market," said Robert Heier, president of The Heier Group, financial planners in McLean.

In fact, though most workers are covered by defined benefit plans, workers eligible to participate in 401(k) plans rose to 33 percent of all private, full-time workers last year from 7 percent in 1983.

Also, defined contribution plans, which include 401(k) plans and others that often call on the employe to decide how to manage retirement dollars, are growing in number and may offer more investment options than ever to employes.

Last September, the Labor Department proposed regulations that would require companies with such plans to give employes qualitatively different investment choices and the ability to switch among them.

Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm, reported recently that 96 percent of the 812 major employers it surveyed offered some kind of defined contribution plan, usually as a supplement to a regular pension plan. Typically, plans offer several investment choices.

There are varying schools of thought of when is the best time to actually break into the nest egg. Stanley Breitbard, director of executive financial services at Price Waterhouse, said client studies have shown that in many cases the marginal value of continuing to work is fairly low.

"We see a trend a companies providing assistance to the rank-and-file so that they will retire on time," said Breitbard.

"Companies can save enormous amounts of money and employes can achieve their life style goals -- retire in comfort at an age when they can have some leisure time and are young enough to enjoy it," he said.

On the other hand, if you come late to nest egg building, you may have no choice but to keep plugging away.

"It's a very scary time because once you are on a fixed income, you need enough to last you the rest of your life," said Morse. "And there is the real fear of outliving your nest egg."ENDQUA