Americans are not prepared for the unexpected.
Just 37% say they would have enough money in savings to pay for a $1,000 hospital visit or a $500 car repair, a December 2015 Bankrate survey found.
Health issues or car expenses might be hard to predict, but “you can set aside money so you can pay for them and avoid going into debt if they do arise,” says Leslie Tayne, a New York-based debt resolution attorney.
Indeed, not having enough money set aside for unplanned emergencies is a big error. It’s 1 of 6 savings mistakes you should avoid.
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“If you don’t have an emergency fund, that’s the first place to start,” says Patrick Lawson, CFP professional and wealth advisor at TrueWealth Management in Atlanta. “Make sure you have 3 to 6 months of cash flow stored away.”
To get an idea of what the balance in your emergency fund should be, take some time to review what you spend each month. If you’re not sure of your total expenses each month, or don’t know how much you can put toward an emergency fund on a regular basis, draw up a budget, Lawson says.
Think about fixed expenses such as rent, mortgage and utilities. Look at your variable expenditures as well, including groceries, dining out and entertainment.
After comparing your total expenses to your income, you might realize you can save an additional $500 a month. And if you’re only able to set aside a small amount each month, do so until you have your emergency fund at a comfortable level.
Avoid stashing your emergency savings in a long-term investment vehicle, such as a retirement account.
“It’s not easy to get to, and there are fees to transfer money out of there,” Tayne says. “And if it’s in a stock or a bond, you’ll pay a cost to sell it.”
Instead, keep the amount you want designated as an emergency fund in a place that is easy to reach. “Put it in a savings account so it’s accessible, and there are no fees associated with withdrawing the money,” Tayne says.
It makes it easier to save if you have money automatically taken out of your paycheck or checking account and transferred into savings. Otherwise, it can be difficult to discipline yourself to set aside money.
And if you have an amount automatically transferred to a savings account at an online bank, you can typically earn a higher yield on the funds, says Kelly Fisher, founder of personal finance blog Brainy Chick Finance.
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Another way to make the most of automated savings is to direct funds toward specific goals. “I pay my insurance once a year because I get a discount,” Fisher says. To get ready for the annual payment, she sets aside a small amount each month in an account for insurance.
The same setup can be used for saving toward pet emergencies, Christmas gifts or an upcoming trip.
“If you want to travel across the United States, you might estimate you’ll need $1,000 for a flight and hotel, as well as entertainment,” Fisher says. If you set up an account for the trip and then automatically transfer cash to it each month, you’ll be able to calculate how long it will take to reach the goal.
You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, technology can help you achieve your savings goals.
Take advantage of apps such as Acorns. The app keeps track of your regular expenses. When you make a purchase, it rounds up the transaction to the nearest dollar and invests the change. So if you buy an item for $4.35, it will invest the $0.65 needed to reach the next dollar.
Digit, another savings tool, connects to your checking account. It then analyzes what you bring in and the amount to spend. Digit looks for ways to save money, usually between $5 and $50, and transfers the amount directly into savings for you.
“It’s easier to make a small-level change than a complete life overhaul, and cutting your discretionary spending to an extreme can backfire and lead to binge spending,” says Andrea Woroch, a consumer finance expert.
Rather than setting a budget that is so tight you can barely get through the month, set realistic expectations and start small, Woroch says. You might focus on changing one particular behavior in order to save more, and then continue reinforcing it until it feels natural.
“If you eat out 5 days a week, cut back to just 2 while brown-bagging your lunch and cooking at home the other nights,” Woroch says. “Doing so will keep your savings goals on track without making you feel deprived.”
Another risk of trying to set aside too much into savings each month: running short. “You don’t want to have to dip into savings for cash flow because you saved too aggressively on the front end,” Lawson says.
If you’ve found it difficult to settle on saving a certain amount each month in the past, consider designating 5% of your income toward savings as a starting point, Lawson says. After several months or a year, evaluate your progress, and when you feel ready — or get a raise — consider increasing your saving percentage.
If you have high-interest debt, that should be your first priority, Woroch says. “The faster you pay that down, the less you’ll waste on interest and the more you’ll be able to stash away for your various financial goals.”
If it feels overwhelming, try automating payments on a weekly basis. “Making smaller payments more frequently won’t feel like such a burden on your budget,” Woroch says. “For instance, a $50 weekly payment feels more feasible and less of a burden than $200 a month.”
An app like ReadyForZero can track your repayment goals. “This will help you visualize your progress and keep you motivated to work toward the debt pay off target,” Woroch says.