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This Many Americans Are Behind on Emergency Savings

By Maurie Backman - Jan 16, 2019 at 6:04AM

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It's a pretty large percentage.

You never know when life might throw a financial curveball at you. You could wake up one morning and find that your roof has sprung a massive leak or go to start your car and find that it died overnight. And let's not discount the possibility of losing your job or having your hours cut unexpectedly, thereby reducing your income and putting you in a precarious financial situation.

That's why we all need emergency savings on hand, no matter how much we earn or what our expenses look like. Yet an alarming 45% of Americans don't have the money to cover three months of living expenses, according to a report published by the Center for Financial Services Innovation.

That lack of savings, however, isn't a product of Americans' refusal to try. A good 79% of U.S. adults claim they contribute to a savings account regularly or whenever possible. Yet nearly half lack the bare minimum (three months of living expenses) that's typically recommended for an emergency fund.

Man holding head while reading a document.


The problem, of course, is that without adequate emergency savings, you risk throwing yourself into debt the moment an unplanned expense lands in your lap. And that, in turn, could kick-start a vicious cycle in which you're accumulating interest you can't keep up with, thereby digging yourself further into an already unwanted hole. If you'd rather avoid that fate, here are a few steps you can take to boost your cash reserves.

1. Cut back on nonessential spending

The average American wastes $5,339 a year on nonessential expenses like restaurant and takeout meals, coffee, rideshares, and leisure events. If you're behind on emergency savings but regularly spend money on these or other luxuries, then it's time to start cutting back. That could mean pledging to avoid buying prepared food until you have three months of living expenses in the bank or limiting yourself to free entertainment only until you're in a similar boat.

If you're not sure how much you spend at present on nonessentials, create a budget. To do so, comb through your bank and credit card statements, see how much you spend, on average, on recurring expenses, and figure out where you have the wiggle room to curb your spending without upending your life. For example, you could downsize your apartment and lower your rent by $200 a month, but in doing so, you'd need to move. On the other hand, if cooking at home saves you $200 a month, that's a much less obtrusive way to build some cash reserves.

2. Get a side job

It's hard to free up cash for savings when most of your income is eaten up by existing bills. But if you're willing to get a second job, you'll bring home extra cash that isn't already earmarked for living expenses, thereby making it easier for you to build savings. These days, millions of Americans work a side hustle. If you're looking to establish an emergency fund, find something you're willing to do for money and start carving out a few hours a week for it. Incidentally, having a second gig is a good way to buy yourself some job security -- if you lose your main job, you'll have an additional source of income to fall back on while you look for full-time work.

3. Bank whatever bonus cash you get

Many of us get money outside of our regular paychecks during the year. Maybe you're among the millions of Americans who get a tax refund; or maybe you have generous relatives who tend to shower you with birthday cash. No matter your specific source of additional money, if you're behind on near-term savings, the first thing you must do is stick that bonus cash into the bank. A series of small contributions to savings can add up over time.

Life is full of surprises, for better and for worse. If you're lacking in emergency savings, take steps to build that safety net before you actually end up needing it. Otherwise, you're likely to wind up in debt and damage your finances as a result.

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