It's no secret that Americans aren't great savers. Not only do 69% of U.S. adults have less than $1,000 in the bank, but 34% of workers have no savings at all. As a result, an estimated 87 million households are currently living paycheck to paycheck, with pretty much zero margin for error. It's not surprising, then, to learn that when payroll problems inevitably arise, workers without savings are the most likely to suffer.

Payroll errors: A common occurrence

In an ideal world, all workers would get paid in full, and as scheduled, on a consistent basis. But according to a new survey from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated, an estimated 82 million Americans have fallen victim to paycheck errors at some point or another during their careers. That's more than half of the total workforce. And while payroll mistakes sometimes work out in employees' favor, this isn't always the case. Roughly 26% of hourly workers claim they've been underpaid at some point or another, while 15% say they've been paid late.

Person handing over a paycheck


Salaried workers don't have it much better. Around 15% have been underpaid, while 16% say their employers have been late with payments.

Still, when it comes to payment problems, contract workers might have it the worst. A good 20% say they've been paid late, while another 20% say they've been shortchanged on payments. Furthermore, 16% say they've somehow seen their paychecks directly deposited into the wrong account. Oops.

Of course, just because you actually receive your paycheck in full and on time doesn't mean you won't face a different type of hiccup. According to Kronos, at least 10.6 million workers have had at least one paycheck bounce -- talk about inconvenient.

Poor savers are impacted the most

While the occasional payroll glitch may be unavoidable, there's one thing all of us can do to protect ourselves from paycheck-related errors: Have some savings available. Kronos reports that Americans living paycheck to paycheck are the most likely to suffer as the result of an innocent mistake, which makes sense -- if you don't have any money to draw from in a savings account, and your paycheck comes in a week late, you're going to fall behind on your bills.

In fact, a whopping 56 million Americans say they've been late paying their bills because of a paycheck error. And that's the sort of thing that can instantly bring down your credit score.

A better move is to have at least some savings on hand so that if a paycheck is late, or short some cash, you'll have a backup option for meeting your immediate obligations. You should ultimately aim to establish an emergency fund with enough money to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses, but if you can't save at that level just yet, at the very least, set aside $20 from each paycheck. If you're paid 24 times a year, you'll have close to a $500 cushion within 12 months' time, which buys you a little leeway in the event of a payroll error.

Of course, you should by no means stop saving once you've reached the $500 point. Even $1,000 won't suffice as a true emergency fund. But it's a start.

Paycheck errors can be hard to spot

While some payment errors are fairly blatant (for example, it's hard to overlook a $1,000 paycheck issued for just $100), part of the problem is that workers don't always notice mistakes because they're confused about their paychecks to begin with. An estimated 64 million Americans feel that their pay stubs are generally hard to read, and these are the folks who might inadvertently fail to report a minor, yet costly, error. Workers tend to find taxes and deductions particularly baffling -- especially since these numbers can fluctuate throughout the year.

That's why it's important to study your paycheck and make sure you understand the various taxes and deductions you're subject to. If you have questions, don't be shy about asking your employer for an explanation. Chances are, you have a human-resources or payroll person who can walk you through everything, so that you're better equipped to identify errors going forward.

Payroll mistakes are not only common, but have the potential to really hurt households that don't have a financial safety net in place. If you're among the millions of workers living paycheck to paycheck, let this be your wake-up call to start accumulating some savings. Otherwise, a glitch outside your control could wreak havoc on your finances to the point where you might really struggle to recover.