Workers are fighting a battle against temptation as they accept more responsibility to save for their retirement.

As companies shed the burden of paying for their workers' retirement, employees are turning to more hands-on pension plans such as the 401(k), which gives plan-holders more control over and access to their money.

In a typical 401(k), employees contribute an amount and employers match a portion of it.

Employees also have a choice as to how the money is invested. When they change jobs, employees get a lump payment that ideally they should roll into another retirement plan, rather than spend.

The freedom of the 401(k), however, has its price.

As much as one-third of the money in such plans is spent before retirement, often on houses, cars, boats or education, said Jennifer Davis, a research analyst at the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington.

In response, pension administration experts are focusing on helping Americans learn the discipline of saving and resisting the temptation to spend tomorrow's money today.

"Saving money is one of the most difficult things on the face of the Earth to do," said Tom Gellman, vice president and partner of Savitt Consulting Corp., a Miami firm that designs retirement plans for businesses.

"The way you combat the instant gratification of the new generation is with a little old-fashioned discipline," he said.

Saving a little at a time on a regular basis is an effective, relatively painless method, Gellman said. A mere $50 put aside in a 401(k) every month and invested at 8 percent for 20 years would yield about $30,000, he said. If an employer matched half that monthly contribution, the return would top $44,000 after 20 years.

Y. Stephen Liedman, president of Miami-based Y.S. Liedman & Associates, which specializes in 401(k) administration, said the psychological commitment to a 401(k) is far different from traditional defined-benefit plans where employers set aside a guaranteed amount of income at retirement.

"The employee is making the conscious decision to put money aside for retirement," Liedman said.

"The average rank-and-file employee is very, very savings-attuned at this point," he said. "And the baby boomers are aware of the lack of suitability of the Social Security system."

More than half of retired people 65 or older get average annual Social Security benefits of just $6,000 each, the Labor Department said.

The 401(k) was born under the Revenue Act of 1978, which expanded the opportunity to save for retirement on a tax-preferred basis. It was named after the Internal Revenue Code section that authorized its use.

During the past decade, the growth of the plans has been remarkable. In May 1983, plans covered 7 percent of working Americans, or 7.1 million workers. In May 1988, a quarter of the nation's work force -- more than 27.5 million workers -- was covered, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

The number of employees participating in plans grew to 15.7 million in 1988 from 2.7 million in 1983, the institute said.

In 1990, employees may contribute up to $7,979 to a 401(k) -- about four times the individual retirement account deductible limit. Although the amount employers will match varies widely by plan, they typically pay 25 to 50 cents for every employee dollar contributed, up to 4 percent or 5 percent of the worker's total compensation.

Investment options, too, vary depending on the plan. A typical plan offers three or four options, including: an equity growth fund, which increases an investment's value; a fixed-income fund, which gives investors a consistent dividend; a balanced fund, which includes both equity and fixed; and a guaranteed account, which promises a certain rate of return.

Gene Holbrook, a pension consultant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said employees should get regular statements showing the status of their plans at least once a year but preferably every six months.

Most plans also make provision for "hardship withdrawals" to get money to cover medical expenses or serious financial trouble. But they are subject to the penalties of early withdrawal and therefore, Holbrook said, can be expensive to get.

"Then there's the moral issue," Liedman said. "Here's an individual who's supposed to be supplementing his retirement income. It's like throwing money out the window."