Life has a way of throwing unpleasant financial surprises at us when we least expect it. You could wake up one day and find that your car won't start, or arrive at work only to be told that you no longer have a job. That's why we all need money in the bank -- to protect ourselves from life's unknowns. Unfortunately, most Americans are sorely lacking in this regard.

A frightening 60% of Americans don't have enough money in savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense, according to new data from Bankrate. That's consistent with the 37% to 41% of U.S. adults who found themselves in an equally precarious financial situation between 2014 and 2018, when similar surveys about savings were conducted.

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The problem, of course, is that when you don't have money on hand to pay for emergencies, you're generally forced to resort to debt. And taking on too much of it could not only cost you more money in the long run, but wreck your credit score and damage your finances for months or years to come. A better bet, therefore, is to boost your savings immediately -- before an unanticipated expense throws you for a loop.

Start building that safety net now

A solid emergency fund is one with enough money to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses. If your savings balance is nowhere close, it's time to do better -- especially if you currently don't have the means to cover a $1,000 bill. In fact, building emergency savings is so important that it should trump all other money matters, including retirement plan contributions.

To begin building cash reserves, create a budget if you don't have one already so you can see where you have room to cut back on spending. Chances are, there are some expenses you can reduce or eliminate that won't totally wreck your quality of life, whether it's ordering in food one day less per week or scaling back your cable package. Of course, the more of your spending you're able to reduce, the better, but if you consistently cut back on smaller but meaningful expenses until you've amassed some cash, it's a good starting point.

Next, look at getting a side hustle. If you're willing to spend five to 10 hours a week working a second job, you could wind up taking home several hundred dollars more each month, and since that cash won't already be earmarked for existing bills, you should have no problem sticking it all in the bank.

Finally, pledge to save any additional money that comes your way, whether it's added earnings in your paychecks from a recent raise or a tax refund from the IRS. Cash gifts apply here, too -- just because it's your birthday doesn't mean you shouldn't put your grandmother's $100 check into savings when you're glaringly behind.

Building an emergency fund often boils down to setting priorities and making choices, but if you want to avoid a world of stress and debt, you'll need to focus on boosting your cash reserves so that you're able to cover a $1,000 unplanned expense, and then some. After all, you never know what life might have in store for you on the financial front, but you're always best off being prepared.

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