The COVID-19 outbreak has spurred not just a health crisis, but also an economic one. With millions of Americans now out of work and countless small businesses shut down, a large number of U.S. adults are already scrambling to pay their bills.

While emergency savings can be a lifeline in situations like the one we're facing, 50% of Americans expect that their savings will run out by the end of April, according to a new survey by real estate service Clever. And given that the crisis is showing no signs of letting up in the near future, that's extremely troubling.

Americans are feeling the crunch

Unemployment claims have been reaching record highs as Americans scramble to put money in their pockets in the absence of a paycheck. But those benefits, even with the newly approved $600-a-week boost that came about in late March, may not suffice in helping those who are out of work pay their bills.

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That's where emergency savings come in. Ideally, we're all supposed to have three to six months' worth of living expenses in the bank to prepare for situations like these. Yet 27% of those surveyed by Clever said they never had emergency savings to begin with, while 11% said they've already spent theirs. In fact, only 23% of respondents have enough money in the bank to cover six months of living expenses or more.

If you're out of work and don't have emergency savings, it's obviously too late to go back in time and build some. But what you should do is make establishing an emergency fund your first priority once things get back to normal. That way, if another crisis arises and you're unable to work for a period of time, you'll have a way to pay your bills without taking on debt. And to be clear, 25% of Americans have already added to their debt load because of COVID-19, with 28% of folks in that category borrowing over $2,000.

An emergency fund could get you through a recession, too

There's already talk of the COVID-19 crisis leading to a full-blown recession, which means many Americans could find themselves out of work for a lengthy period of time. If you're short on emergency savings or don't have any left and you're already out of work, do what you can to immediately cut expenses. It's hard to change your spending habits in the middle of a crisis, but at this point, every dollar saved could really help.

If you've managed to retain your job and paycheck thus far during the crisis, take the opportunity to boost your cash reserves if you're not happy with your savings account balance. Again, three months' worth of living expenses is really the minimum you should aim for, with six months' worth of bills buying you a lot more protection, especially if a recession is coming.

Building savings during a crisis is no easy feat, but the effort you make today could spare you a world of financial stress if things get worse on either a personal or national level.

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