NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Americans actually want to put more money away in case of an emergency, like a health issue or lost job. But most believe they don't have the means, determination or the wherewithal to save enough money in a so-called rainy day fund.

BMO Harris Premier Service notes this week that while consumers do save for rainy days, they "lack a concrete financial plan, and only half save in a systematic manner, such as contributing from every paycheck."

That might be why only 20% of respondents in a BMO Harris survey thought they had an emergency fund that would help them survive a year of bad health or unemployment.

Many savers seem to believe they have an out in an emergency situation — they can rely on retirement funds to bail them out. More than three-quarters of U.S. adults surveyed by BMO Harris (76%) had already dipped into retirement savings for such things as unexpected repairs. But as financial professionals point out, relying on a retirement bailout when you need cash is no plan at all.

"Dipping into a retirement fund should be the last resort," says Alex Dousmanis-Curtis, head of U.S. retail banking at BMO Harris Bank. "Not only are there financial penalties for liquidating those accounts early, but also that money that will be missed — even if retirement is 30 or 40 years down the line."

There's a better way for Americans to create, build and sustain a rainy-day fund — one that lasts for the long term and is no secret: being disciplined and creative.

"One of the best savings tips that has helped me save money is to open up a free, online savings account and choose an amount that is transferred from my checking account to the online savings account," says Niomi Sage Williams, a personal finance blogger at

Williams says she sets up an automatic transfer of $150 for every payday. "By 'setting it and forgetting' it, people can slowly start building up their rainy day funds," she says. Another tip from Williams: Throw any extra income into a savings account. "People can get extra income through work bonuses, tax refund, selling unused items, pet-sitting or working a second job," she says.

Others get even more creative. Josh Brooks, a military veteran and founder of The Enduring Charity Foundation in Atlanta, Ga., offers the following rainy-day savings recipe:

  1. Open a bank account in a second bank.
  2. Deposit a rainy-day fund into second bank regularly, ideally via direct deposit.
  3. Destroy the second bank's debit card, and do not order checks. The only way to get to this money is to personally visit the bank.
  4. Rely on bank e-statements, then designate emails from that bank a spam.

"The idea here is 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Brooks says.

With your good credit on the line, experts say you should think of a rainy-day fund as a "bill" too — and therefore a priority. "The key is to pay yourself first," says Eszylfie Taylor, president of Taylor Insurance & Financial Services in Pasadena, Calif. "Take the first 10% to 20% of your paycheck and put it away before doing anything else."

Cutting household spending is also necessary in building a sustainable rainy-day fund. Some consumers may not want to give up the odd dinner out or live without the priciest smartphones, but the savings in leaving luxuries aside can mean the difference between a fund that lasts 90 days or one that lasts more than 365 days.

"You really have to examine your expenses," says Froilan Rellora, chief investment officer of Catalina Asset Management in Mesa, Ariz. "While it's important to know what you're paying, it's even more important to know why you're paying for something." Rellora also advises cutting cable bills and looking at your cellphone bill to see if you can get a better deal on data usage. Also, review all of your contracts, such as credit cards, insurance and other household services.

"Companies will often have specials for renewing contracts or for being a longtime customer," Rellora says. "I sometimes call my credit card company to see if they are willing to do a zero percent interest balance transfer from my other cards, and half the time they do."

Maybe that's really the best way to make a rainy-day fund last for a year and longer: Leave no stone unturned. That way, there's extra cash for your savings fund in a lot of places you haven't been looking before.