You've probably heard that it's important to save for emergencies, because you never know when life might throw a financial curveball your way. It could be a busted roof, a car that suddenly won't run, or a medical bill that's higher than your entire paycheck. Or it could be the loss of your job.

Either way, you need money in the bank to cover unplanned bills -- at a minimum, three months' worth of essential living expenses. Yet a large number of Americans aren't saving for emergencies, and for 73%, the reason boils down to having too much debt.

In a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 36% of Americans said their non-mortgage debt has had a major impact on their ability to build an emergency fund. Meanwhile, 37% said their debt has had a minor impact on their ability to save, but an impact nonetheless.

Yellow diamond-shaped road sign with the word debt with a backdrop of dark, gray skies


The irony, of course, is that not having adequate emergency savings puts you at risk of racking up -- wait for it -- even more unhealthy debt. If you don't have money in the bank when an unplanned expense arises, you'll most likely have no choice but to charge it on a credit card, thereby compounding your debt problem and costing yourself interest you can't afford to be paying.

That's why you absolutely need emergency savings, so much so that amassing some should take priority over all other financial goals, including paying down bad debt. Here are a few steps you can take to boost your cash reserves, and avoid taking on more debt needlessly.

1. Cut back on spending

Cutting back on spending is a good way to free up cash for your savings account, but it pays to do so efficiently. To this end, create a budget to see where your money is actually going month after month, and identify a few recurring expenses to slash.

You might move to a smaller apartment to save several hundred dollars a month on rent. Or, you might give up a car you can live without, and instead rely on public transportation. If you dine out a lot, curbing that habit could free up similar amounts of money. The point is to make meaningful changes that actually free up a substantial amount of money on an ongoing basis. Saving $50 a month by canceling your gym membership is certainly better than doing nothing at all, but if you're sitting on pretty much no savings, you'll need to do a lot better than that.

2. Get a second job

The gig economy is booming, which means there's ample opportunity to boost your income by taking on a side hustle. And the more extra money you bring in, the more you'll have to stick in the bank. Remember, your second job doesn't have to be something you hate. There are plenty of hobbies you can turn into an income source, from photography to cooking to crafting. And the more you're willing to hustle, the sooner you stand to get your savings to a healthy level.

3. Sell items you no longer need

We all have things lying around in our closets, basements, or garages that are really doing nothing more than taking up space. If you're low on cash reserves, take inventory and sell those items you no longer have a use for.

Maybe you have an old laptop lying around that you haven't touched in months. A local college student might pay you $100 for it if it's all he or she can afford. Or, maybe you have a number of smaller items that aren't worth a lot individually, but could amount to a nice sum of money collectively. Selling your unwanted stuff won't cost you anything other than time, so any amount of cash you eke out is a step toward building a healthy level of savings.

Savings first, debt second

You may be tempted to chip away at your debt before your emergency fund is complete in order to save money on interest, but don't. While the interest you'll earn in most savings accounts will pale in comparison to the interest you're paying on a credit card, as mentioned earlier, not having savings exposes you to the possibility of even more debt. You're better off establishing your emergency fund first, and then upholding the good habits you employed to do so to tackle your debt once and for all.