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Here's How Americans Are Doing on Emergency Savings

By Maurie Backman - Feb 17, 2018 at 2:18PM

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Hint: It isn't good.

No matter your age, occupation, or income, you need a certain level of savings to cover the unexpected -- whether it's a layoff, hospital stay, or broken-down car. Yet new data reveals that Americans as a whole are glaringly behind on emergency savings. According to a new GOBanking rates study, more than half of U.S. adults don't have enough money in the bank to tackle several common financial emergencies. Specifically:

  • 55% of Americans couldn't cover six months of living expenses in the face of unemployment.
  • 54% of U.S. adults couldn't pay for a medical emergency.
  • 42% of Americans couldn't manage an unforeseen auto repair.

To further illustrate how poorly we're all doing, consider this: The typical American household spends $57,311 annually. Based on that figure, a $28,656 emergency fund is needed to pay living expenses during a six-month period of unemployment. But 38% of U.S. adults have less than $1,000 in savings, which means that, clearly, they're nowhere close.

Woman crying while looking at papers

Image source: Getty Images.

Furthermore, while 50% of Americans have less than $1,000 set aside for emergency car repairs, a good 23% have less than $100 on hand for this purpose. And we all know that when cars break down, they tend to cost a bundle to fix.

Along these lines, almost half of Americans have less than $1,000 on hand for medical expenses, while 25% have less than $100. And that's perhaps the most concerning statistic of all, given that medical debt is actually the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy filings in the country. Moreover, the fact that Americans aren't saving for medical purposes means they're likely putting their health at risk. Case in point: An estimated 20% of working adults admit they avoid high medical bills by simply not going to the doctor at all.

There's no question that all of this data is troublesome. Rather, the question is this: What can we do about it?

Why are we struggling to save?

It's easy to point a finger at numerous factors that inhibit our savings efforts. Low wages, high living costs, and nagging student loan payments explain why many working adults can't manage to bank even a touch of money at the end of each month.

But the real reason so many workers have a hard time saving is that we just don't make it a priority. It's as simple as that. And once we recognize the importance of having fully loaded emergency funds, we'll be in a better place to start making more of an effort.

So here's a little reality check that might help convince you to change your ways: If you don't acquire some savings, you'll be forced to resort to credit card debt when the unexpected strikes. At that point, you'll risk damaging your credit, wrecking your finances, and potentially losing things like your home or your vehicle in the process. You might even be forced into bankruptcy, which isn't the picnic you might think it to be. Therefore, if you'd rather not permanently upend your finances, you'd be wise to start changing your ways and putting your savings ahead of all else.

Building your savings

If you're behind on savings but want to do better, start by creating a budget. List your recurring monthly expenses, factor in one-time costs, and compare your total spending to your total take-home pay. If the numbers don't allow for much (or any) savings, then you'll need to start slashing expenses. Immediately.

The specific bills you cut will be up to you. You might choose to unload one major expense, like your vehicle, and free up an instant $500 a month that way. Or, you might decide to make smaller changes, like cutting back on cable, leisure, and restaurant meals to achieve that same goal. It doesn't really matter which expenses you cut as long as you start to see more money land in your savings account. In addition to lowering your living expenses, you might consider getting a side hustle, which will not only bring in additional money, but perhaps also prevent you from having to go too crazy on the cost-cutting front.

Of course, there are other ways you can boost your savings, too. If you're due a tax refund, stick it directly in the bank. The same applies to whatever bonuses or commissions you land in the near future. Similarly, if you have items at home you no longer need, spend some time selling them and pocket the cash.

No matter what you do to build your savings, the key is to make it a priority so you're not stuck when the unexpected strikes. No one is immune to emergencies, but if you build enough of a safety net, your next financial shock won't necessarily have to ruin your life.

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