If you found yourself suddenly stuck with a $2,000 bill, could you pay it? In a recent study, the National Bureau of Economic Research posed this question to a random sampling of Americans. The results were … not encouraging:

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Source: NBER, as paraphrased by the author.

If surprised by a major auto repair, hospital bill, leaky roof -- what have you -- fully 50% of Americans polled said they either probably, or definitely, could not lay hands on $2,000 cash to pay the bill. Worse, a large majority of the folks who admitted they'd have difficulty described a series of rather desperate acts they'd have to take to cope: Tapping credit cards for cash. Visiting a payday loan provider. Pawning their possessions.

That's good news for pawnbrokers like EZCORP (Nasdaq: EZPW) and First Cash (Nasdaq: FCFS), I imagine, and for payday lenders Advance America (NYSE: AEA) and Cash America (NYSE: CSH). Literally half of America is just one small financial crisis away from becoming a customer. But it's less good news for the folks caught in their clutches.

Stop reading -- it's the Foolish thing to do
Which brings me to my point: If you are among the 50% that would struggle to come up with $2,000 in a pinch, what in heaven's name are you doing visiting a stock investing website? Much as we'd love to sign you up for a newsletter, and glad as we are to have you reading our stock picks … your first job is to secure yourself against disaster. Only then should you consider investing in stocks ...

Of course, here at the Fool, getting you ready to invest in stocks in the first place is part of our mission, too. Want some advice getting started? Visit our Living Below Your Means discussion board. Fools are standing by, ready to lend an ear and give you some helpful advice.

Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.