COVID-19 has been sickening thousands of Americans and wreaking havoc on millions more. In fact, many states are reporting that their online employment claim-filing systems are overloaded due to the massive uptick in benefit requests in the past week alone.

It's for situations like these that having emergency savings becomes crucial. While unemployment benefits will put some money in your pocket if you're out of work, they won't replace your entire paycheck -- not even close. And if you're self-employed, you're out of luck, as freelance workers generally aren't eligible for unemployment benefits.

Glass jar labeled emergency savings filled with bills.


Unfortunately, though, a large number of Americans are unprepared to handle a crisis like the one we're in the midst of. Around 25% of U.S. adults say they have no emergency savings at all, according to GOBankingRates, while more than 23% say they only have enough money to cover their bills for one to three weeks.

Meanwhile, 19% of Americans have enough money in the bank to pay for two months of bills, and though that's better than nothing, it might not suffice in this scenario. A lot of the businesses that have been forced to close down due to COVID-19 might not reopen, and if they do, they might not manage to reemploy their entire staff.

The point? Having an emergency fund is crucial, and while it might be too late to build one for the current crisis, you can pledge to amass some cash reserves once things get back to normal and you're reunited with your paycheck.

Building your safety net

If you're grappling with a reduction in income, now's not the time to build an emergency fund, because you probably need all the money you can get to pay for basics and keep a roof over your head. But once you are working again, get yourself on a tight budget that limits your discretionary spending. That way, you'll have money available to put in the bank.

At the same time, consider getting a side job once it's safer to go out and do so. Spending a few hours a week driving for a rideshare company or taking care of other people's pets could put a nice amount of money in your pocket.

How much savings should you aim for? The current crisis is proof that having three to six months' worth of essential living expenses in the bank is a must. That's not a sum you'll be able to come up with overnight, but if you work on it, you'll get there in time.

The COVID-19 outbreak is unlike any scenario most of us have seen before, and we don't yet know whether it will result in a full-blown recession. If you're without emergency savings right now, there's no sense in beating yourself up over something that can't be helped; that's not a productive use of your mental energy. But one thing you can do is pledge to build savings once things normalize so that the next time you land in a crisis, be it personal or global, you'll be ready.