By Nancy Dorfman, Guest Columnist

Q: I run a small company. Many of my employees say they live paycheck to paycheck. I want to do what I can to help them stretch their income. Mainly, I’d like to advise them on how best to save for retirement. What steps would you recommend?

A: First of all, congratulations on recognizing the need to help your workers save for retirement. Many Americans either don’t recognize it, or pretend that it will “somehow” get taken care of by “someone.” In fact, in a recent survey, a significant percentage of respondents expected to receive money during retirement from a pension plan – even though they weren’t working for companies that provided them!

Your employees are not alone in having difficulty saving. A September 2007 MarketWatch article revealed that nearly half of all Americans “lose” $2,340 annually in “mystery spending” – money that’s not actually misplaced, just frittered away. That’s $45 a week, which would be plenty to begin a serious effort at retirement savings.

There are countless influences telling you to buy. Your employees need to tell themselves to save. “Finding” the money to save has a two-pronged solution. Longer-term, they need to have a spending plan that will ensure that they live within their means. In the short term, they should promise themselves that before they buy or spend money on anything, they will ask themselves these four questions.

1. If I buy this, will it help me reach my goals, or keep me from reaching my goals?

Tell your workers that each time they spend, the money could have been used to reduce debt, pay bills, or save for retirement or some other goal. They should consider stopping themselves before they spend, and ask if they will be able to achieve important goals if that money leaves their hands.

2. What will happen if I don’t buy this? 

This question is important because there is so much artificial “hurry” and “buy now” urgency in today’s advertising.

One of our instructors heard a very telling response to this question at a workshop presented several years ago. After reading the question, one participant shouted: “Somebody else will get it!” It was said in jest, but with a kernel of truth. Sometimes we get so hung up on keeping up with (or staying ahead of) the Joneses, that we’ll do anything, including spending money we don’t have, for appearances’ sake. Employees should tell themselves that their self-image will not depend on what they drive, what they have, or what they wear.

3. If I had to pay cash for this, do I still want it (and can I afford it)?

Thanks to credit cards, this question has now become all important. It’s almost impossible to name a store that does not accept credit cards. Virtually every convenience store, gas station, grocery store and fast-food outlet accepts plastic – and people use it. If they’re using debit cards, that’s fine, but the majority of plastic spending today is still done with credit cards.

Workers need to ask this third question every time they pull out a credit card to make a purchase. Research has shown that consumers will spend up to 35% more when on a “charge everything” system.

Ask the “If I had to pay cash” question before using a credit card, and your employees will be surprised how many times the answer is “I don’t want it. And I definitely can’t afford it.”

4. Is this a need, or a want?

This is a useful distinction. We do need to eat; we don’t need to eat steak every night, or eat out every night. We may want a new car, but the car doesn’tneed to be new to meet our transportation needs. We may need presentable clothing for work; but if we’ve met that need, we may want the nice suit or outfit in the store window – but we don’t need it.

The point: Our needs are really few; our wants are unlimited. Being an intelligent consumer is really all about choosing which wants we can fulfill after taking care of our basic needs.

If your workers ask themselves these four questions consistently, they will eliminate much, if not most, of the “mystery spending” noted above – and find the money to put toward their retirement goals.

Nancy Dorfman is President of Future Outlook, Inc., which provides unbiased, engaging, financial education workshops that empowers employees to resolve financial stress and improve their productivity in the workplace. Due to reduced financial stress, employees are more attentive in their work, more productive, more likely to stay with the organization and more effective in contributing to the company’s bottom line. Everyone wins.