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Baby Boomers Are Falling Down on Emergency Savings -- and Putting Their Retirement at Risk

By Maurie Backman – Updated Apr 18, 2018 at 9:51AM

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You need money in the bank for a rainy day. Unfortunately, most older workers are sorely lacking in this regard.

Have you ever pulled out of your driveway only to have your car stall moments later? Or come home from work to find that your heating system had gone kaput and your house had become a walk-in freezer? Such scenarios can befall any of us, which is why we all need emergency savings on hand to cover unplanned expenses.

Unfortunately, new data reveals that baby boomers in general are relatively ill equipped to cover such financial emergencies. Roughly 70% of older workers have just $5,000 or less in immediately accessible savings, according to data from the Insured Retirement Institute. And that means they're not only putting their near-term finances in danger, but their retirements as well.

Older man holding a blue piggy bank and looking at a phone

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Don't get caught up in debt

What happens when an unexpected bill lands in your lap that your paycheck and minimal savings can't pay for? It's easy: You wind up in debt.

Now debt can be problematic for workers of all ages, because the longer you owe that money, the more you lose to interest. But it's especially troublesome for older workers for a couple of reasons. First, if you're using your spare cash to make your debt payments, that money might take the plan of late-in-life retirement plan contributions, thereby stunting your long-term savings. Furthermore, you'll risk taking that debt with you into retirement, where it might monopolize a large chunk of your limited income until you pay it off -- if you ever manage to pay it off in your lifetime.

A better bet? Build an emergency fund with at least three months' worth of living expenses, and ideally more like six months' worth. If you're sitting on $5,000, it's a good start, but most likely not nearly enough to pay your bills for three full months.

Keep in mind that as an older worker, you're by no means immune to job loss -- but you might struggle more so than your younger counterparts to find new work. In fact, research from Boston College shows that unemployed workers 55 and over are less likely to get hired than unemployed younger workers despite their added experience. That means you need at least three months of living expenses in the bank to prepare for such a scenario.

Building your safety net

You'd think baby boomers would have an easier time saving money since they're more likely to be advanced in their careers and earning higher salaries than younger workers. At the same time, boomers have their own share of bills to contend with -- not the least of which, college. But if you're serious about protecting yourself financially, you'll need to make some sacrifices to establish that safety net.

For one thing, review your budget and figure out ways to cut costs, even if temporarily. The $300 a month you're spending to have a second household car? If one of you doesn't need that vehicle to commute, unloading it could put $3,600 in your savings account by the end of the year. Similarly, if you're willing to make a few smaller changes, like scaling back on store-bought lunches and restaurant meals or downgrading your cellphone plan, you can slowly but surely pocket enough cash to build the reserves you need.

Another option? Consider a side hustle, even if for only a limited period of time. According to data from Bankrate, workers aged 53 to 62 who work a side hustle are more likely to bring home an extra $1,000 per month -- or more -- than workers of any other age group. If you're lucky enough to snag that much extra cash from your second gig, you might finish building your emergency fund in a year or less, especially if you make budget cuts simultaneously. And while the idea of working an extra gig might seem like a drag, if you uncover something you're passionate about, you might manage to turn it into an income stream in retirement, thus giving yourself something to do with your days while buying yourself more financial flexibility later in life.

There's no question about it: You need a fully loaded emergency fund at any age. If you don't have one, make that your priority above all other things, including retirement savings. Otherwise, you may be sorely out of luck the next time a surprise bill comes your way.

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