A month before the collapse of the nation's largest banks sparked a crisis on Wall Street, small businesses were already feeling the pinch of an economic downturn and were bracing for tougher times ahead, according to a Harris Interactive survey released this week.

Nearly 60 percent of the more than 500 small-business owners polled cited new business development as their biggest challenge, the New York-based research firm said. Another 20 percent were worried about access to cash.

While many owners said they were able to save money for their businesses every month, up to 40 percent of respondents said they've seen their company’s financial situation worsen over the past year. At the same time, more than half said they're personal savings were shrinking compared to a year ago.

Tough access to cash and credit had also forced some small-business owners to cut back on retirement savings, the survey found. Only 26 percent of respondents said they had some kind of retirement plan in place, down from 35 percent in a similar survey last year.

“Unless the market picks up with credit, access to cash and other things that are important to small business owners, the general mood is going to continue to be very concerned,” Stuart Robertson, general manager of ShareBuilder 401k, a sponsor of the survey, said.

The survey was conducted over a four-week period between July and August.