Forty-five percent of middle income households don't have a savings or money market account, according torecent data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Meanwhile, 51 percent of Americans don't have the funds available to pay for an unexpected expense of $1,000 or more.

In other words, the majority of Americans today have no emergency savings in place and many more have far less than the recommended three to six months of expenses stashed away.

Because life can unexpectedly throw a costly illness or imminent home repair your way, being prepared with a financial safety net can help keep a bad situation from getting worse. Just ask Dominique Reese, a personal financial coach and consultant, who was able to save herself from financial turmoil by having a well-funded safety cushion in place.

The unexpected strikes
Reese was working for a financial start-up that lost its funding, closed down and ultimately led to a widespread corporate layoff.

She was out of work for one week when she was discovered something else: She was expecting a baby.

Pregnant and unemployed, Reese balanced a drive to start her own business with her need to take care of a budding family.

Reese was fortunate to receive a small severance from her former employer, but what helped her really stay afloat was the three month safety cushion she'd diligently stashed away while she was still working.

"There's no way to be prepared for a layoff except to build an emergency fund," she says. "As long as I'm saving, I feel less worried about unexpected and uncontrollable events."

While some worry that saving small amounts will have no impact on their security, diligent saving of small amounts can amount to something bigger over time. According to Patricia Nelson, founder of the community outreach program Wise Women Workshop, "Even if you can scrape up savings of $100 per month, that's $1,200 per year. Those numbers add up over time."

Fortunately for Reese, she had been able to scrape together much more. She'd been saving $500 every two weeks when she got paid.

"My employer allowed up to three direct deposits," she says. "So, I had a portion of my pay deposited directly into a regular saving account, a portion into my checking account, and -- most important -- a portion into my online savings account. I tried to keep the most money in the online savings account because it was the hardest to access. The one-to-two business day wait was enough to keep me from spending that money as freely."

For Reese, finding the funds to save came down to recognizing where she was spending excessively. That helped her know where to cut back. Reese lived in the expensive San Francisco area and loved to eat out. Once she realized her dining habit was costing her a safety net, she scaled back, saving her splurges for the weekend.

Likewise, she curtailed unnecessary shopping and made it a point to shop the bargain rack. "Before I bought something new," she says, "I made sure I could find it on sale. I also made sure that I really needed it."

The opportunity
Reese had run her own business before and knew she wanted to be a business owner again. "Being laid off gave me the incentive to jump back into entrepreneurship," Reese says. "If I hadn't had the savings in place, I would have looked for a job that could have funded me as I built the business."

According to Nelson, maintaining a funded saving account affects how a person faces life's challenges. "Money can create happiness or fear," she says. "If you're not saving money, if you're not paying yourself first, then you're creating a life without a built-in safety cushion. That can be scary for a lot of people."

Instead of returning to full-time day job, Reese was able to dedicate her time and energy toward building her dream career as a business owner. "We all have a responsibility to put ourselves first," she says. That way, she says, "when the opportunity to pivot arises, you're ready to take it."

Like Reese's experience shows, you never know when a financial crisis -- or opportunity -- can strike. Having some savings in reserve can make all the difference in how well you handle it.

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