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Bankrate survey: Just 4 in 10 Americans have savings they’d rely on in an emergency

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When Sarah Ballard’s kitchen tile floor shifted and tiles began to crack, she knew she’d have to come up with $2,000 to make the fixes.

“A tilted tile could have sliced my foot open,” says Ballard, 38, of Jamestown, New York. “But I just didn’t have the money in the bank at the time.”

A combination of back-to-school expenses for kids and airplane tickets for the Labor Day weekend had left the family low on ready cash.

The classic emergency fund still eludes more than half of Americans, just like the Ballards, according to a new Bankrate Money Pulse survey.

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Americans and their unexpected expenses |

Expect the unexpected

Just 41 percent of adults said they would pay an unexpected cost from savings. That’s a 4 percent increase from last year’s survey.

If you have a car, house or apartment, or a pet or child — shoot, if you’re a member of the human race — something that costs money is bound to go wrong.

In Bankrate’s latest survey, 45 percent of American adults said they or their immediate family had had a major unexpected expense in the past 12 months. That’s up 2 percent from last year.

The most common unexpected incidents are related to transportation, appliances or home-related breakdown or injury or illness.

A person’s age and work status often determines if he or she is more apt to use savings or credit cards to pay for the unexpected.

Millennials are much likelier to tap savings, with 45 percent saying so, possibly because they continue giving the cold shoulder to credit cards. Members of the “silent generation” (71 years and older) have the highest credit use for unexpected expenses, at 28 percent.

Whether or not you’re a parent definitely plays a part in cash flow. Parents were less likely, at 36 percent, to use savings for an unexpected expense than the childless, at 43 percent.

Fear factor

Americans are increasingly aware of the need to save for emergencies, says Carina Diamond, a certified financial planner professional in Akron, Ohio, and board ambassador for the CFP Board.

“I wish I could say it’s because people are smarter about it, but it’s really the fear factor,” she says. “One little thing — a new roof, a medical emergency — can set you up for financial disaster if you don’t have an emergency fund.”

People say they’ll borrow from an IRA or 401(k), tap into home equity or turn to family members, but Diamond discourages these options. None of them is without negative implications, and nothing beats emergency cash in the bank, she says.

“It is a much better alternative,” she says. “There is nothing as quick and free of negative consequences.”

Finding budget cuts

One way to put more into an emergency savings is to cut spending, and different age groups prefer to cut their spending in various ways.

Overall, 37 percent of Americans said they were very or somewhat likely to cut back on alcohol if they needed or wanted to save more money. Millennials were the most in favor of cutting back on alcohol, with 51 percent saying they’d be very or somewhat likely to do so. The silent generation had a 17 percent favorability rating on willingness to cut their alcohol spend.

Younger millennials were the biggest group, at 46 percent, to say they were very likely to cut back on buying coffee in a coffee or doughnut shop. Overall, 44 percent said they’d cut back on coffee purchases.

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Set reasonable goals

Paul Golden, a spokesman for the National Endowment for Financial Education in Dallas, is not a fan of the recommendation that you keep the equivalent of six to nine months’ expenses in your emergency account.

It’s simply unrealistic at some income levels to accumulate that much cash.

“If you tell a family making $60,000 that they need to have $40,000, it’s very unrealistic,” he says.

When the very goal becomes discouraging, an individual can find it all too easy to give up. Instead, Golden recommends starting with a smaller amount.

“Even $500 has been proven to have a psychological benefit,” he says. “It improves people’s psychological well-being and shows you have the ability to set (and meet) an achievable goal.”

Once you meet that amount, reset the bar.

“Reach a $500 goal, then $1,000,” Golden says.

Building emergency cash

The way to build up a fund is to set priorities and track where your money is going. It takes diligence, Golden says, and it is best done over several months, not just one.

“That gives you a sense of where you can find gaps, impulse spending to find money to put in that emergency account,” Golden says.

Diamond strongly discourages borrowing from a retirement account in an emergency situation.

“You’re compromising your future,” she cautions.

Diamond advises you to pay yourself first.

“Every month, you put money in your 401(k), you pay off debt. Putting month in an emergency fund each month is just another monthly expense,” she says.

If you’re a homeowner, she recommends using a home equity line of credit.

“Have that as an emergency fund,” Diamond says.

While you’re paying it off, the interest is tax-deductible.

The lesson is to expect the unexpected.

“It’s not a matter of if but when an unexpected expense will pop up,” Golden says. “It’s only a matter of time.”  

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Methodology: Bankrate’s poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which obtained the data via telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults living in the continental U.S. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (503) and cellphone (500, including 317 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish from Jan. 5-8, 2017.

Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.