If you had to tap into your emergency savings, how long could you live without breaking out the credit cards? Do you even have an emergency savings account?

A national survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that only 40% of adults keep a separate emergency savings fund to cover the small and large bumps in life. That's kind of disappointing, since emergencies have a way of striking 100% of us at some time.

Among those of us who have been preparing for the unknown, virtually all of us feel well-prepared to deal with whatever comes our way: 81% feel they can cover their emergency expenditures in the coming year.

Drill down a little further into the findings, however, and you'll find that 14% of people with emergency accounts say they have less than $500 in the fund. More than half say they have more than $2,000. Consider these numbers a really rough guess at what's stashed in our emergency coffers, since almost two in 10 people refused to answer this question.

It's too bad that the survey didn't ask respondents whether they have something closer to the Fool's recommendation that every good saver hold three to six months of expenses in an emergency account.

To be fair, emergencies can fall under two categories. The first consists of the annoying but big-ticket costs of unexpected failures. There's the washing machine that gives out and floods the basement. Maybe it's the cracked tooth that costs too much to repair. You might have unexpectedly had to replace all the tires on your car.

In these cases, it's nice to know you have a little bit of money stashed away to cover unexpected and expensive items that you simply cannot delay. This prevents you from having to turn to your credit cards to smooth out the spending.

The second and more significant form of emergency can cause much more upheaval. Those cases often mean your income has been disrupted or your emergency spending needs are in the thousands. This could be the result of a job loss, a major medical crisis, or a major family crisis.

It's in these cases that you'll want the comfort of at least three to six months of expenses saved someplace safe and easily accessible. Even if your life gets turned upside down, you know you'll be able to pay the mortgage and buy groceries for a while as things settle down.

If you're not even coming close to that amount, consider these ways you can boost your emergency savings:

  • Automatic deposits. They don't have to be huge, they just have to be consistent. Set up a savings account and an electronic transfer to feed this account on a monthly basis. Making it automatic means you're less likely to get to the end of the month and find there's just nothing left for the savings account.
  • Bank your tax refund. If your refund is significant, you can quickly ramp up your emergency savings by depositing most or all of it in that savings account.
  • Reroute your debt payments. Finally pay off that car or credit card? Take the money you had been sending to the lender and send it to yourself. You've already gotten used to living without that money, so why not make it work for you. You'll watch your emergency savings grow quickly.
  • Save your loose change. This might not put you on the fast track to a big emergency savings account, but it's a strategy used by one-third of the people who told the Consumer Federation of America that they have an emergency savings account. It definitely can't hurt.

Check out the Savings Center for more information about why everyone should have emergency savings and where to stash it.

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple tries to avoid emergencies large and small, and she welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.