If the balance of your credit card bill is greater than the money you have saved for a rainy day, you're going to need a larger umbrella.

Even after the recession showed just how valuable an emergency fund can be, Americans still aren't great at building one. It isn't for lack of trying. 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. Advisors told them multiple times last year that an emergency fund not only comes in handy in a pinch, but it's a financial security measure that really shouldn't be delayed by other circumstances.

Savers are well aware of its importance, with 39% of investors expecting 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. However, though 53% of those investors don’t expect major personal events to impact their finances in 2016, having a cushion to fall back on never hurts.

”A good rule of thumb is to have an emergency fund that covers at least six months of expenses," Anthony D. Criscuolo, certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, told us in 2015. “If you are older and/or have dependents, you may want to be even more conservative and build up 12 months of expenses.”

However, most Americans just can't bring themselves to build an adequate emergency fund. 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. Still, it's only part of the story. Roughly 22% of Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings and another 21% have neither credit card debt nor emergency savings. Interestingly, Millennials are more likely than any other age group to have more emergency savings than credit card debt.

“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,” said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “Their aversion to credit cards may have also played a part in helping them grow their savings accounts.”

So how do you follow the Millennials' example and make an emergency fund out of nothing? First, Criscuolo says, make it a priority over other long-term savings. Anything beyond a company 401(k) plan with matching contributions (“free money”) should move to the back of the line, especially if you're worried about job security or work in an unstable industry.

From there, start budgeting and tracking expenses.


Melinda Kibler, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla. office, says this will help determine where you can reduce spending. Otherwise, she says, you’re likely to reach the end of the year without having saved and not knowing why. From there, Kibler recommends reducing debt by starting with loans carrying the highest interest rate first. That's typically credit card debt, which she says can be wiped out by transferring it to a 0% interest credit card or negotiating a better rate on your existing cards.

After that, you can use the payments you were making to pay off your debt to build up your savings and cover six to 12 months of living expenses in case of an emergency. If you don’t have to tap into the emergency fund, it will eventually become part of your retirement nest egg, which is kind of a big deal for debt-laden Millennials. Of the 74% of Millennials who financial firm Franklin Templeton says are considering working during their retirement, 30% think they won't be able to retire at all.

“A good rule of thumb is to have an emergency fund that covers at least six months of expenses,” says Crisculolo. “If you are older and/or have dependents, you may want to be even more conservative and build up 12 months of expenses.”

Even when you have an emergency fund ready to go, there are still a few options available before you use it. First, make an emergency budget in advance. If you already have a standard budget that factors in your normal income and expenses, take a look at non-essential expenses that can be cut or reduced in an emergency and make a low-expense budget based on those trims. Secondly, if keep your credit clean so a 0% interest credit card or home equity loan is an option. An emergency line of credit still isn't ideal, and should be reserved for actual emergencies, but it can provide you a low-rate cushion until you're able to level things out again.


Finally, always remember that an “emergency” isn't a trip or a night out with friends. Your emergency fund should be dedicated to more urgent matters and, by no means, should be treated like a piggy bank or ATM.

“You never know when an emergency will occur or how severe it may be,” Criscuolo says. “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.