Source: Flickr user Dan Moyle.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve finds that the surprisingly small sum of $400 in unexpected costs would put nearly half of all Americans into a position that would require selling something, borrowing money, or skipping other payments to cover it.

Troubling reminder
The discovery that such a small amount of money could derail many American's budgets is yet another example of why Americans need to be better preparing for their golden years. According to the Federal Reserve, 47% of respondents surveyed in their annual Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2014 wouldn't be able to readily pay $400 for an emergency expense with cash or a credit card that would be paid off within a month.

That's worrisome, given that the survey reports that any money set aside by most people with incomes south of $40,000 is for such expenses, rather than for retirement, which is a stark contrast to higher-income earners. People with incomes north of $40,000 are more likely to be saving up for their senior years, and far less likely to be socking away money for an emergency.

A big hurdle
Tight budgets are a major reason why so few people have been able to put aside any money in their retirement accounts. After all, it's hard to think long term when 45% of Americans earning less than $40,000 have skipped out of some form of medical care -- such as dental care or prescription medicine -- in the past year because money is running short.

Overall, the Federal Reserve found that 57% of what Americans spend matches or exceeds their incomes. As a result, 53% of those earning less than $40,000 report saving absolutely none of their income for a rainy day.

Source: The Federal Reserve.

That's a big problem because it means that many Americans will be counting on Social Security for income in retirement.

However, since the average retired worker gets just $1,333 per month in Social Security benefits, it's unlikely that Social Security will be enough to cover retirement expenses, especially for those retirees who are used to living in higher-income-earning households. Twenty-five percent of those earning between $40,000 and $100,000, and 14% of those earning more than $100,000, fail to put anything away in savings, either.

Source: The Federal Reserve.

Getting on track
Debt could be one of the big reasons why many people struggle to put money away for retirement. Roughly 27% of respondents surveyed by the Federal Reserve owe student loans, and 8% of those people are currently behind on their payments. More than half of Americans under age 44 with a bachelor's degree relied on student loans for at least some of their college costs, and as a result, the average American owes $35,657 in student-loan debt.

The picture isn't much prettier when we consider the impact of credit cards. Overall, 76% of Americans have at least one credit card, and 44% let their credit card balances revolve every month, often incurring significant interest in the process.

Because student loan and credit card debt could be a dragging down savings rates, solutions that eliminate or reduce debt, or debt payments, and free up money in monthly budgets, is a great first step to getting on track to start saving.

For example, simple decisions that repurpose money from day-to-day expenses to debt reduction include downgrading your cable or cell-phone plan, and renegotiating your car or home insurance bill. Additional money in the monthly budget might be found by brown-bagging lunches more often to work, or opting for a traditional coffee rather than a barista's fancy concoction for your daily pick-me-up.

After making those changes to spending, other options such as refinancing credit cards into a home-equity loan, which can offer some tax advantages on interest, or contacting your student loan lender or the Department of Education about new payment programs, such as income-based payment plans, can be considered, too.

Those may seem like small changes, but they can lead to big changes in your financial picture over time. For instance, setting aside $100 per month in an investment yielding a hypothetical 6% annually would grow to nearly $95,000 over 30 years -- and that's not chump change.

Looking ahead
Unfortunately, we're all tossed financial curve balls from time to time, and without the proper amount of savings, those curve balls can significantly dent retirement savings goals. For that reason, those who haven't begun putting money aside may want to start doing it now. Hopefully, by making changes that result in more money heading into savings accounts and retirement plans, and less money heading to debt, can help ensure that a $400 surprise won't end up derailing your financial future.