Even the optimists may have been surprised. When individual retirement accounts (IRAs) became available to the general public as of the first of this year, the most outrageous estimates put total first-year contributions at about
That figure will probably not be reached. But before the deadline next April 15 for opening 1982 IRAs passes, many experts believe Americans will have sheltered about $35 billion toward their retirement. The figure represents an unprecedented wave of personal saving that can be attributed to several factors:
* Tax savings. Up to $2,000 can be put into an individual IRA, or $2,250 into a spousal IRA. This contribution can be subtracted from a person's taxable income, and the interest grows tax-free every year until retirement.
* Publicity. The new availability of IRAs caused one of the fiercest advertising battles ever seen in the financial services industry. Banks, savings and loans, brokerages, mutual funds, credit unions, and insurance companies purchased more advertising - and prompted more confusion - than had ever been seen from these companies.
* Concern about social security. As questions about the national public pension system's ability to meet its obligations continued to grow, many Americans apparently decided they would have to take a greater share of responsibility for their own retirement incomes. Similar concern about the solvency of private corporate pensions, particularly as the recession caused many companies to go bankrupt or terminate their pension plans, added to the desire for a personal pension plan.
''A lot of pension funds are in a lot of trouble,'' said William J. Grace, a broker in the Washington, D.C., area. ''Many people are beginning to realize their IRA account could be the only source of income when they retire.'' Mr. Grace is also the author of a guidebook on these accounts, ''The ABCs of IRAs'' (New York, Dell Publishing Company, $3.95).
Of course, most observers believe Congress will do whatever is necessary to keep the social security system alive.
* The baby boom. The entry of this generation into its 30s and 40s, an age range when many people first begin to think seriously about the money they will need to live on after retirement, gave IRA programs a major demographic push. In addition, many people in this generation have started to earn incomes large enough that they can afford to set aside some of it for retirement.
* The recession. People usually save more money in uncertain economic times, and this recession is no different. With the universal IRA program in place, many of those savings dollars went into retirement accounts.
Many of those IRA dollars were not ''new'' savings, but transfers from existing accounts, so they did not contribute to the nation's savings rate. At the credit unions, for instance, it is estimated that about 40 percent of the IRA deposits represented ''new'' money, said Brooke Shearer, a spokeswoman for the Credit Union National Association.
Even though IRAs have been generally available for nearly a year, the winners of the battle for IRA dollars are hard to determine. The only study on the subject was done last April by the Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association, a Hartford, Conn., organization supported by the life insurance industry. Although the figures are several months old, they do indicate percentage trends which industry observers say are still fairly valid.
In a poll of 3,634 households in April, the marketing association found commercial banks were receiving 29 percent of IRA deposits and savings-and-loans were getting 28 percent. Brokerage firms were receiving 11 percent; insurance companies, 10 percent; mutual funds, 9 percent; credit unions, 8 percent; employer-sponsored IRAs, 2 percent; and all others, about 2 percent.
The survey also found a ''very high awareness'' of IRAs, said Robert O'Connor , an associate scientist in the association's economic and consumer research division. Of those eligible, 89 percent had heard of the program, and 33 percent of them had either opened an IRA or planned to do so.
Mr. O'Connor said the association will do another survey next April, after the income tax filing deadline. At that time, it is expected the number of IRA accounts will have grown substantially, as people beat the deadline for opening IRAs and seek to reduce their income tax obligation.
As indicated by this year's survey, the overwhelming majority of IRAs have been opened by individuals. Company-sponsored IRAs ''have not been resoundingly successful,'' said Kenneth Keene, a director of employee benefits at Johnson & Higgins, a benefit consulting firm. Instead of IRAs, Mr. Keene said, most employers that wish to add to their pension plans are offering ''salary reduction plans.''
These saving vehicles have many of the same tax advantages of IRAs, but they let workers save more than the $2,000 limit and permit people to get at their money early in an emergency without having to pay a penalty.
There are advantages for employers, as well, because money put in a salary reduction plan is not counted as part of an employee's wages for social security purposes. Thus, the company does not have to pay as much in social security taxes.
Keen said there may be a hitch in the salary reduction program, however. Recently, the Internal Revenue Service came out with a proposed ruling that said the money an employee withheld in one of these plans would not be used in figuring the worker's final salary for social security pension purposes. This would reduce that person's pension, thus removing much of the employer's incentive for opening a salary reduction plan, Keene argued.
Overall, though, most people in the financial industry are quite pleased with the first year of expanded IRAs.
''We expected to see a lot of activity,'' said Allen Friedman, a spokesman for the US League of Savings Associations. ''And we've gotten it.''