When it comes to money matters, working Americans have plenty to worry about. Many of us are far behind on retirement savings, while a large number of us have more credit card debt than we'd care to admit. But here's a statistic that might surprise you: According to a 2016 PricewaterhouseCoopers study, 20% of Americans are worried about being laid off from a job.

Given that most Americans don't have adequate emergency savings to fall back on, this is an undeniably legitimate fear. GoBankingRates reports that 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in the bank, while 34% have no immediate savings at all. Without adequate emergency savings, most people who do fall victim to layoffs will have no choice but to sell off possessions or take on high-interest debt to cover their basic living expenses as they look for work. If you're behind on savings, it's time to focus on building that emergency fund -- no matter how secure your job might seem.

Older man packing up his desk


Your emergency savings target

The average household needs enough emergency savings to cover three to six months of living expenses, but there are some circumstances that might warrant needing more. If, for example, you're the sole breadwinner in a family with multiple dependents, you're better off having six to nine months of savings on hand. The same holds true if you work in an industry where jobs are particularly sparse. If you can't sock away a full six months of living expenses (or more) just yet, at the very least, aim for that three-month target. It'll serve as your lifeline if you lose your job unexpectedly.

As an example, imagine you're out of work, you need $5,000 a month to cover your living costs, and all you have is $500 in a savings account. Now let's assume that you weren't fired for cause and are therefore eligible to receive some unemployment benefits while you look for work -- say, $1,500 a month. Even if you manage to find a new job in just 30 days' time, you'll still be short $3,000 that first month. And what happens if it takes you three months to find a new job? Suddenly, you're $10,000 in the hole.

And if you think you'll be back on your feet in no time following a layoff, think again. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, it took laid-off workers just over three months, on average, to find new jobs. But in a down market, it could take twice as long. In fact, back in 2010, the average laid-off American needed 25.2 weeks to become reemployed. And that's a long time to go without any means of paying the bills.

Put emergency savings above all else

If your emergency savings are sorely lacking, it's time to make them a priority while you are working and bringing in income. You can start by creating a budget to track your monthly expenses. An estimated 60% of households don't follow a budget, but without one, you'll have no real way of knowing where your money is going month after month.

Once you have your budget in place, you'll need to work on cutting corners to make room for savings. This could involve things like reducing your cable package, foregoing restaurant meals, or doing your own home repairs in place of paying professionals. If smaller changes don't amount to much, you may need to get extreme. That could mean downsizing your living space for a year or two, getting rid of a vehicle, or working a second job to build your savings.

Furthermore, if you're in a dead-end job, you might consider spending a little money to build your savings. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you pay for a course or certification to boost your skills, and it qualifies you for a more lucrative position elsewhere, you'll be able to use those extra earnings to add to your savings. You might even buy yourself a little job security in the process.

Even in a booming economy and seemingly stable work environment, you never know when you might suddenly find yourself out of a job -- and out of options for paying the bills. The only way to protect yourself from the consequences of a layoff is to establish an emergency fund that buys you ample time to find a new position. It may require some hard work and sacrifice, but it'll be well worth the effort if it helps you sleep better at night.