We all need emergency savings to protect ourselves from life's less pleasant financial surprises, whether it's home repairs, automobile issues, or medical bills. Without an emergency fund, you risk racking up serious credit card debt when unplanned bills creep up out of nowhere. And while U.S. workers on the whole are doing a poor job of saving for the unknown, hourly employees in particular have loads of catching up to do.

Almost 76% of hourly workers have less than $500 saved in an emergency fund, according to financial app Branch, with 40% having $0 saved for sudden bills. If your savings account is in a similar state, it pays to start making some lifestyle changes -- before an unexpected expense upends your finances in a very damaging way.

Glass jar with bills labeled emergency savings


Building your safety net

If you're an hourly worker whose hours vary, your income will obviously follow suit. And that can make saving money very difficult. But if you don't make an effort to prioritize your savings, you'll risk accumulating mountains of debt when life throws financial curveballs at you.

The solution? Start by creating a budget to follow, but base that budget off your lowest recent monthly income, if yours varies. For example, if you bring home $3,400 some months but only $3,000 other months because of the nature of your payment setup, use $3,000 as the baseline for your budget, and make sure your total expenses don't exceed that figure.

To keep to that limit, you may need to cut back on some existing bills, whether that means canceling your cable package or packing lunch every day rather than buying it from a deli or café. You may even need to make some bigger changes, like downsizing to a smaller living space to lower your rent. The key is to make sure you're not spending more than your lowest amount of earnings in a given month, and also, to have income to save consistently, whether it's $200 some months or $600 other months.

At the same time, you might consider getting yourself a second job if your hours vary to the point where your income becomes truly unpredictable, and therefore tough to manage. Your goal here, however, should be to secure a side gig that's flexible. This way, if you have a month when you're not working as many hours as usual at your main job, you'll have the option to ramp up your side work. On the flipside, when you're offered the opportunity to work overtime by your main employer, you won't have to say no because you're committed to a second job.

What sort of side gig might you pursue then? Jobs you can do from home could be ideal, whether it's writing, data entry, bookkeeping, graphic/web design, or even customer service. Another option? Turn a hobby you enjoy into a side hustle, whether it's photography, crafting, cooking/baking, or gardening.

Being an hourly employee certainly has its challenges, but don't neglect your emergency savings because of them. You should, ideally, have enough money in the bank to cover a minimum of three months of living expenses. Adjusting your lifestyle a bit and giving yourself the option to boost your income could change your financial picture for the better.