One in every four of you is absolutely doomed if a financial emergency arises.
Roughly 66 million U.S. adults have absolutely nothing saved for an emergency, according to a Bankrate.com survey. That's a quarter of all adults, but a whopping 33% of Gen X-ers ages 36 to 51. Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's chief financial analyst, generally recommends an emergency savings fund that contains at least six months' worth of expenses, but just 28% of Americans have saved that much. Roughly 47% of Americans ages 71 and older have at least that much socked away, but younger generations are starting to get the idea. Two-thirds of 18- to 35-year-olds have some savings, though just 20% have six months' worth of expenses in the bank.
"This underscores the fact that it takes time, especially because expenses grow faster than many Americans can save during the home-buying, family-raising years," McBride explained. "Accumulating emergency savings requires establishing the habit, and Millennials get high marks."
According to a survey by Capital One Investing, 26.3% of all respondents said that creating an emergency fund is their top financial goal for 2016. Last year, we heard multiple calls to build an emergency fund, expect the unexpected and strengthen your next egg. However, very few of you have been heeding that advice.
According to Hartford Funds, 39% of investors expect to experience a significant life event in 2016. Nearly one-fifth of Americans expect to be dealing with an aging parent in 2016, while 18% of respondents under the age of 45 expect a parent or child to move into their home in 2016. Though 53% of those investors don't expect major personal events to impact their finances in 2016, planning for unforeseen circumstances never hurts.
That said, it's proving more difficult than many Americans imagined. According to Bankrate, 52% of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt. That's down from 58% last year, but up from 51% in 2014. However, 22% of Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings and another 21% have neither credit card debt nor emergency savings. Again, the youngest Americans are starting to get the idea.
"Contrary to society's perception of Millennials and their financial characteristics, Millennials have learned from their parents' mistakes and are more cautious when it comes to saving for that rainy day," McBride says. "Their aversion to credit cards may have also played a part in helping them grow their savings accounts."
So where do you start? Anthony D. Criscuolo, certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, advises putting emergency planning ahead of other long-term savings. Keep paying into a company 401(k) plan that gets "free money" from matching contributions, especially if you're worried about job security. However, according to the Credit Union National Association, you should try to set a savings goal and put away some accessible cash.
Criscuolo notes that even seemingly safe investments such as two-year CDs won't help if something comes up before the term ends and you have to pay early surrender charges. Instead, avoid anything with a maturity greater than three months and keep at least some of the emergency fund in cash or money market funds.
"The yield is low, but the purpose of an emergency fund is not to generate income or have a good rate of return, it's to protect you and provide cash in the event of an emergency," Criscuolo says.
If you need a little extra help, Criscuolo advises keeping an emergency line of credit open as a last resort. It won't keep you out of debt, but it will float you for a while.
"It may be too late to apply for a credit card with no income and no assets, so having one or two backup lines of credit in place before an emergency is a good idea," he says. "The best options are usually a credit card with no annual fee or a home equity line of credit."
You don't have to use that fallback plan if you make an emergency budget in advance. Scan your regular budget for non-essential expenses that you can cut in an emergency: Cable, streaming services and the like. That should help your standard six- to 12-month budget stretch a little bit.
Finally, don't get too comfortable. Just because you're in a better job now or feeling more confident in your spending habits doesn't mean an emergency isn't waiting somewhere down the line. If you don't end up dipping into your emergency fund, it can become part of your nest egg. Just don't start looking at it as playing-around money if fortune turns in your favor.
"A weekend trip with your friends is not an emergency, " Criscuolo says. "You never know when an emergency will occur or how severe it may be. If an emergency hits right after you used some of the money, you may never be able to replenish the account and what's left may not be enough to last through the length of the emergency."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.