Man reviewing paperwork
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

A savings account ain’t Bitcoin.

You’re not likely to go to a dinner party and be asked, unprompted, what you make of a particular savings account or a money-market fund. There’s no glory in it. In fact, you’re liable to hear your dinner guests guffaw at the abysmal yields these kinds of accounts are paying.

And yet, there is perhaps no financial product more important to your financial health than a robust savings account. A savings account provides a source to tap if unexpected costs arise, inoculating you from sinking into debt to pay off a leaky roof, or tapping your retirement fund. You’ll have a hard time living the life you want, either now or in your golden years, without one.

Rates and fees for savings accounts

There are two main features to consider when signing up for a savings account: fees and interest rates. The latter is much more important than the former.

Remember, you don’t accumulate savings to build wealth—that’s what your house and investment accounts are for. You build savings to hedge against bad stuff happening (like losing a job or your car breaking down), or to buy a big purchase in the future (like the down payment on a house.)

That’s why you shouldn’t get too discouraged that savings accounts yield so little these days. But you want to be especially mindful of fees.

Traditional brick-and-mortar financial institutions generally charge a monthly fee, around $5 for no-frills accounts and more for high-yield ones. The fee can be waived by keeping a minimum balance in the account, usually a few hundred bucks.

You’re unlikely to find these fees in online accounts, but you will pay if you make more withdrawals than allowed by the bank, overdraft on your account or order a stop payment. Make sure you go over the details on your account so you can avoid paying extra.

Checking account vs savings account

In theory, it’s easy to differentiate a savings and checking accounts. A savings account is where you keep a whole bunch of money that you may need some day. A checking account is where you put money from your paycheck to pay bills. (You should use a credit card rather than a debit card when you actually buy things, but that’s another story.)

In practice, it’s a bit trickier. That’s because costs don’t neatly line up with incoming revenue, and you don’t relish combing through your finances to figure out the least you can keep in a checking account without overdrawing.

The key is to start small and automate. Open a savings account with enough cash to avoid the monthly maintenance fee, and slowly add to it by automatically siphoning off a small chunk of your biweekly paycheck.

You’ll soon have a meaningful down payment toward your emergency fund.

How much you need to save

Once you’ve begun automatically contributing to a no-fee, high-yield savings account, it’s time to set some goals. Ideally you want three to six months’ worth of expenses squirreled away. That can be a daunting task. More than two-in-five Americans don’t have that much saved up, according to a recent Bankrate survey.

Start by tallying up all of the costs you need to pay each month—like housing payments and food—and then aim to save up for one month. Once you’ve hit that goal, shoot for six weeks, then two months and on and on.

It may be tough seeing thousands of dollars sitting in a savings account yielding nothing more than 1 percent or so a year. But remind yourself that’s not the point.

It’s is there so you can save for retirement without having to raid your 401(k) if you get fired, or hack into your kid’s 529 before she goes off to college.

You need a reliable pile of easily accessible cash so your other investments can do their jobs.