There's no time like the present to save for the future

Joining a pension scheme is the first step to a comfortable retirement - and the earlier you do it, the better

Ask a friend, a colleague or a family member how they plan to fund their retirement, and it's possible their reply will include mentions of pensions, property and other investments.

More and more people are deciding not to put all their eggs in one basket in accumulating funds for their later years, according to new research from Barclays Wealth. However, disturbing findings in the same report show that one in five people are relying on cash savings accounts alone.

That is likely to prove a costly mistake, warns Philippa Gee from the independent financial adviser (IFA) Torquil Clark. "Cash and other investments still have their part to play in retirement planning," she says. "But they are much more likely to be short-term investments, which you may use from time to time - and therefore give no assurance as to the eventual retirement income."

As a first step towards securing a comfortable retirement, she recommends joining your employer's pension scheme.

"Many people haven't even done this - simply because it all seems too technical and nightmarish to cope with," she says, adding that it is particularly important to take action if the company also makes a contribution." Miss the opportunity, she adds, and "it is tantamount to throwing money away".

If you don't pay into a pension fund - whether a company or a personal scheme - bear in mind that you will be also missing out on valuable tax relief. For every £78 you contribute as a basic-rate taxpayer, the Government pays in an extra £22. Higher-rate taxpayers do even better: for every £60 they pay in, the taxman tops up their fund with £40.

Many of us are guilty of taking a head-in-the-sand approach to pensions. Inability to afford the payments is the most common excuse, followed by reasons such as "I haven't got around to it" or "I'm too young".

"People still see saving for their retirement as a low financial priority as they struggle to balance setting aside a reasonable amount for the future with the financial demands of everyday living," says Stephen Ingledew at Barclays Wealth.

But as the table below illustrates, delaying starting a pension by even a few years can end up costing you dearly - particularly in the case of women, who should save more than men because they have a longer life expectancy.

Martin Bamford from IFA Informed Choice says it's never too late to start making provision for retirement. But he adds: "The earlier you start saving, the easier it becomes to build a substantial pot of money."

He suggests savers consider a range of retirement plans, including an individual savings account (ISA) - but warns that this type of savings vehicle requires more discipline than a pension because you can get your hands on the money at any time.

The Barclays Wealth report also shows that as house prices climb steadily, more than a third of people are relying on bricks and mortar as a means of saving for their retirement.

"Property is very popular," says Donna Bradshaw from IFA IFG Group. "But if interest rates go up, or if prices drop, some investors could find themselves in serious financial difficulty."

The secret of retirement planning, she adds, is to diversify.

How the specialists are saving towards their retirement

The Independent on Sunday asked three independent financial advisers about their own financial planning.

Philippa Gee, Torquil Clark

Ms Gee has significantly increased her pension contributions this year. She says: "Despite the inflexibility of a pension, the tax relief and disciplined savings approach are an important part of my planning.

"I also have property and direct equity investments."

Martin Bamford, Informed Choice

"I'm using a personal pension," says Mr Bamford, "but plan to move the money across to a self-invested personal pension [Sipp], where I can invest more actively in a wider range of assets.

"My pension fund contains a well-diversified spread of investments. I'm fairly aggressive when it comes to investment risk so there is a high proportion of equities, but I haven't neglected some exposure to property and fixed-interest funds as well."

Donna Bradshaw, IFG Group

"With the benefit of hindsight, I could have contributed more to my pension plans and ISAs," says Ms Bradshaw, "but other areas [of my planning] had priority at certain times - such as a year travelling in my thirties.

"I'm neither a natural saver nor an over-spender and would rather keep working than retire."