Down through our nation's history, there have been good times and bad times -- and it has usually been clear which was which.

Not so the 1980s. This decade opened amid roaring inflation that shriveled paychecks but turned houses into engines of wealth. It lurched back into double-digit interest rates that cooled inflation but sent the economy reeling into recession. Then, almost as abruptly, interest rates eased, the economy roared from bust to boom, and the stock market took off on a five-year romp.

Now the stock market lies in disarray and many economists are talking of recession once more. The editors of Business Week magazine warned their readers recently to "say hello to the lean years."

In short, the economy will not stay put. And across the country, from region to region and family to family, economic andpersonal-finance strategies that seemed sound a short time ago have failed to provide the rewards expected of them.

The shifting sands have caught corporate America as well, and in their struggles to survive companies have eliminated thousands of jobs, restricted benefits, and rearranged pension plans to shift more responsibility -- and more risk -- onto retirees.

Financial services companies, too, have been forced to shift with the times, with the result that once-simple products, ranging from mortgages to insurance, have taken on mind-boggling complexity.

On top of it all, many components of the American dream have become so expensive -- the single-family house, college tuition -- that the day of simply saving for them is long past. Instead, the middle-class family must begin planning years in advance, seeking investments that will outrun the inflation rate of their goal. This may mean extraordinary risk or heavy debt.

The middle class is thus on its own as perhaps never before. Even those with good incomes are bewildered, wondering if they're doing the right things with their money, wondering if ultimately, somehow, there will be enough.

"They're confused, they're frustrated, they're angry," Bernie Wolfe, a Rockville-based financial planner, said of people who come to him. "They're crying out for help."

While such feelings are nothing new to the poor and the near-poor, they are a relatively recent phenomenon among the better off. And financial planners here and in other parts of the country report that even highly paid executives are finding themselves at sea in the new financial world.

"People have very limited knowledge," said Bethesda-based planner Marvin Burt. "They just haven't had the experience and background to make the kinds of decisions that have to be made today."

Washington is a very prosperous area by national standards, and local planners note that their clients' goals, in Burt's words, "generally are attainable."

But there is a growing portion of the population for whom economic choices can mean the difference between a middle-class life and something less.

Economic consultant A. Gary Shilling sees what he calls a "polarization of income," with the middle shrinking and the lower-income group growing.

"The people involved don't admit it" but instead are "borrowing to keep up a life they can't afford," he said.

University of Massachusetts economist Barry Bluestone foresees an even bleaker future in which "we are going to see hundreds and hundreds of thousands of American families literally declaring bankruptcy."

Whether that is too grim -- and other economists say it is -- Americans plainly are not saving money the way they used to. Where as recently as the 1970s Americans saved an average of about 8 percent of disposable income, that rate had plunged to 3.2 percent earlier this year.

And savings are the foundation upon which financial security is built, planners agree. Most proper plans include a cash reserve, they say, with insurance and then other investments coming later.

But even saving isn't that easy anymore. Assuming the would-be saver can find the cash and self-discipline to put it aside, even something as simple as a bank account presents a variety of choices that can leave an unsophisticated consumer bewildered.

Said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) at a hearing of his Senate Consumer Affairs subcommittee earlier this month, "Technology, deregulation and creativity have combined to produce a dazzling -- and sometimes dizzying -- array of new products for consumers."

Life insurance is certainly dizzying. No longer is it merely a choice of plain vanilla whole life and term life policies. The industry now offers products with names like universal life, variable life and variable universal life. The policies have investment aspects as well as straightforward insurance components, and can be used as mechanisms to build up assets on a tax-deferred basis.

Add to this the complexities of the stock market, the bond market, government bonds, limited partnerships, mortgage-backed securities and other even more esoteric instruments, and you have the makings of a consumer nightmare.

But one man's nightmare is another man's market opportunity -- in this case the financial planners.

This year Price Waterhouse & Co. became the first of the Big Eight accounting firms to establish a full-scale financial planning arm.

"We just see a general demand for more financial planning," said Stanley Breitbard, the firm's national director of executive financial services.

"People seem to be asking more these days about handling finances than about more narrow issues. It's not just tax planning anymore. We see a natural service area for us."

The need to do active planning for things such as college tuition and retirement, rather than letting one's employer or the government handle it, is pushing more people to seek professional assistance, he noted.

"People are in this age required to take charge more of their own finances," he said. "We think we've got something here."

Politicians, too, are beginning to smell an issue.

Dodd's Consumer Affairs panel is holding a series of hearings on "the ability of consumers to plan their financial affairs in today's world."

Dodd said he wonders "what role Congress can or should play, if any, in helping consumers work their way through the forest of investment instruments. Should we require more disclosure? Should we standardize some of the basic terms and conditions? Should we try to legislate for different types of consumers?"

Tahira K. Hira, associate professor of family economics and personal finance at Iowa State University, said anything that provides consumers with clearer and more accurate information would be welcome.

"People are getting very concerned. ... Whenever we have some presentation or something, people flock to it.

"The concern that I think people have is, 'Where is the advice coming from?'"

She noted that "If most of it is coming from a salesperson" they are more skeptical, "but if they think you, as an educator, are giving them {disinterested} advice, then the bulbs go on and they are very interested," she said.

But Hira indicated that lack of information is not the entire problem for many of those who have trouble managing their finances.

Part of the problem is today's value system.

She has done extensive polling among consumers, especially younger ones, and finds that "there are a lot of paradoxes in people's minds. ... We have not really clear values that are sorted out. We lack a sense that if I want this then I can't have that."

Credit cards and instant loans have blurred the distinction between assets and borrowing until people lose sight of their economic limitations, she said.

And until people get their priorities in order, neither planners' advice nor government disclosure rules will solve their problems.