The nation's long-running economic expansion continues to amaze and please economists, and while they may at last be about to witness its end, many experts are optimistic that there will be no recession, or at worst a mild one.

But out in the real economy, away from Washington and the government feeding trough, there is growing alarm. Squeezed by inflation that keeps nibbling away at them, pushing goals just a little bit farther out of reach each year, many Americans have become quite gloomy in their view of the future.

According to a recent survey by the International Association for Financial Planning, 86 percent of consumers fear a sharp resurgence of inflation, while 69 percent foresee a deep recession.

"The long-term outlook of the American psyche is depressed," the IAFP concluded.

Especially troubled are members of what the IAFP calls the "triple-squeeze generation," people in the 35-44 age bracket who will have a child in college in six years (on the average), who will be taking care of an aged parent in nine years, and who know they ought to be putting aside money for their own retirement but can't.

Three-quarters of these people feel that sending their kids to college will cut into their own standards of living, and 65 percent said college costs will limit their ability to help their parents.

Some 59 percent of this "squeezed" group said they worry that they will not be able to meet their overall financial responsibilities, compared with 49 percent of the public at large who have that worry.

Women today are especially pessimistic. For example, some 91 percent said college will be out of reach for most young Americans and their families within 10 years.

Likewise, 71 percent see day care as a serious problem for young families -- compared with 52 percent of men -- and about half are worried about paying for their parents' day-to-day care.

One of the survey's findings, however, portends well for the economy. After a decade of borrowing and spending, Americans appear to be getting economic religion.

Sixty-two percent said they plan to save more -- or already are saving more -- because of their concerns, and among the squeezed generation the figure climbs to 75 percent.

The survey's results fit nicely with what planners are selling, of course. "We like to think that as a result of working with us, our clients don't have to worry quite so much" about the kinds of questions raised in the survey, said David J. Drucker of Malgoire Drucker Inc., a planning firm in Bethesda.

But the findings, and much of the advice that accompanies them, also fit with what is an economic reality for a growing number of Americans.

From long-term care to pension income to college tuition, more and more of us are going to have to make it on our own.

Government programs are shrinking -- at least relative to need -- and employers are less and less willing to shoulder risks for pension benefits and retirement health care.

Neil Barnes, a Phoenix planner and head of the IAFP, suggests a four-point program for beginning to deal with your financial future. It is simple, and much of it can be carried out on your own, although a planner, accountant or other financial expert could certainly help.

The first step, Barnes said, is to set your priorities -- retirement income, college tuition, whatever -- and begin to figure out what you will need to achieve them.

There are plenty of books -- as well as magazine and newspaper articles -- with formulas and tables to help you assign dollar amounts to your goals.

At the same time, inventory your assets and what they earn or could earn if converted to cash. Sometimes people are better off than they realize, said David Drucker, adding that "sometimes a client might have an indexed annuity, such as a government or military pension. We show them the present value of the annuity with their life expectancy -- they could be millionaires and not realize it. People see that {and it} helps them feel much more comfortable and perhaps be willing to take more risk in another area of their financial life."

The next step is to begin to eliminate debt, especially consumer debt. "We've constantly preached that the consumer needs to reduce their debt, their consumer debt specifically ..., the ultimate goal being zero, particularly since there's no tax advantage in it," Barnes said.

Third, increase your saving. Barnes noted that "that is a double-edged sword" when combined with eliminating debt, and may not be easy.

But he added that "in this day and age, there are so many opportunities for retirement planning through places of employment" that it may not be quite as hard as it seems.

He advised investigating all employer-sponsored savings plans, such as 401(k) or profit-sharing plans, where the employer may add on matching contributions that boost your savings.

These plans are usually tax-deferred as well, which further boosts returns.

"The goal there should be 5 to 13 percent of one's {after-tax} income going into savings," he said, and the closer to the high end of that range the better. "We arrived at those numbers because that's sort of the range where you can do a 401(k) with matching" employer funds and actually reach the target.

The key: "Pay yourself first," he said, meaning that part of anyone's paycheck should go into their savings plan before the bills are paid.

The final step takes place only after you have accumulated an emergency fund equal to 90 days to six months of "hard dollar" family expenses -- real, unavoidable costs like food and shelter.

At that point you can begin to build a diversified investment portfolio of stocks, bonds and other assets.

Barnes conceded that while this plan is simple, it isn't easy.

"I don't think there's any question ... that a great percentage of Americans do maintain their lifestyle on credit," he said.

"In terms of scaling back the consumer debt, what that probably means is that they are going to have to take a look at their current lifestyle and make some adjustments -- don't go out to dinner three {to} four times a week, don't buy another new car this year, defer it to next year, all those kinds of issues."

But remember, he said, "the heart of financial planning is cash-flow management."