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Americans are more confident about saving for retirement, CNBC survey finds. That doesn't mean they aren't worried

Sarah O'Brien

Good news America: You're feeling way more optimistic about saving for retirement.

But you still worry about it — a lot, in fact.

More than half of adults are either somewhat more confident (30 percent) or much more confident (27 percent) about their ability to save for retirement than they were three years ago, according to the CNBC and Acorns Invest In You Savings Survey.

Yet despite that boost in confidence — which comes amid a strong economy — saving for retirement also ranks as the overall top personal finance concern at 23 percent, markedly so for the 45-to-64 age group, the survey shows.

"If we're lagging on our long-term goals, we're always going to feel concerned, even if we're in a good spot for now," said Douglas Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York.

The survey, conducted for CNBC by SurveyMonkey in March, polled more than 2,300 adults about various aspects of financial wellness.

While the Great Recession that ended in mid-2009 is far in the rearview mirror, recovering from it proved challenging for many people. And competing priorities — including home purchases, college educations, unexpected financial emergencies, higher health expenses — have squeezed a lot of household budgets.

Yet now, with the economy in its 10th year of expansion, wages creeping up and unemployment below 4 percent, experts say being in a better place financially is a good opportunity to address your savings anxiety.

"If you haven't already engaged in financial planning or done your own analysis, now is a good time to do it," Boneparth said. "When you don't do a retirement plan, you're just guessing and shooting from the hip."

While 17 percent of survey respondents said they use a financial advisor — who can help solidify a retirement savings plan and advise you in other aspects of your financial life — most respondents (75 percent) said they manage their money without help.

If you're in that crowd and are committed to flying solo, there are tools you can use to see if you're on track with your savings and steps you can take to address shortfalls.

For instance, you can use an online inflation calculator to see the anticipated value of money in 10 or 20 years. So say you spend $4,000 a month now and anticipate your expenses remaining where they are, the calculator will tell you what that amount would be down the road.

That can give you a sense of what you'd need monthly and annually, and how far your savings will stretch. When trying to determine where you stand, remember to consider all sources of income you anticipate in retirement, including Social Security, business income and pensions.

If you discover you're falling short, there are ways to boost your savings. For example, you can take a hard look at your budget and figure out what frivolous expenses you can eliminate and instead put that toward your nest egg.

"You could find small daily amounts to cut out that add up to a couple thousand dollars a year," said John Iammarino, president and founder of Securus Financial in San Diego.

You also could generate more income.

"Today it's so easy to pick up a second job or side job to bring in extra money," said Kathryn Hauer, a CFP with Wilson David Investment Advisors in Aiken, South Carolina. "You can just put anything you make from that second job right into your savings."

The 2019 contribution limit for 401(k) plans and similar workplace retirement plans is $19,000 and for individual retirement accounts — whether traditional or Roth — it's $6,000. People age 50 and older are allowed to make so-called catch-up contributions of $6,000 for 401(k) plans and $1,000 for IRAs.

Also, part of having confidence in the savings aspect of your retirement plan is knowing how a stock market drop would impact your portfolio and how you'd react. That means examining your risk tolerance, which generally refers to both how well you can stomach volatility in the stock market and how long until you need the money.

Younger savers — those who won't need the money for decades — generally can be more aggressively invested in stocks and not worry about volatile times or extended down markets.

"Historically the stock market is the best place to be," Iammarino said. "You just have to be able to stay invested through the downturns."

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For older savers with retirement on the horizon, you might need to adjust your asset allocation — your mix of stocks, bonds and cash — to reflect that looming milestone.

While no one can predict with certainty when the economy or stock market will sour or to what degree, the safe assumption is that when it happens, you're more likely to react emotionally to a drop in your portfolio's value if you haven't anticipated it ahead of time.

"We call it the 'freak-out risk,'" Iammarino said. "If you don't have a plan in place, you risk going to cash at the wrong time — the bottom of the market — and then reinvesting at the top of the market."

The bottom line is that if you prioritize retirement savings and create a plan that matches your goals and vision for you golden years, you're more likely to have peace of mind.

"When people have a plan that accounts for whether things go well or bad, they have a better chance of succeeding," Iammarino said.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.