Many Americans struggle to maintain emergency funds

By Jennifer Elizabeth Austin-Mathewson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 10:49 a.m. MDT

Fewer than one in four Americans have enough savings to cover at least six months' expenses, and 27 percent have no emergency savings whatsoever.

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When Jessi Stanley received a $15,000 inheritance, she dreamt about all the things she could do with the extra money.

She wanted to put a down payment on a new house or buy a new car. But the 48-year-old from North Carolina knew what it was like to be poor, and decided to do something most Americans — according to Bankrate — aren’t doing: put the money in savings.

“I saved approximately $40,000 over 14 years,” Stanley said. “A lot was from extra money I received.”

That extra money came from tax refunds, money her father gave her that was supposed to be used for a new car and small inheritances. After paying off her car, she continued to make “car payments” to her savings account.

According to a survey released last week, 76 percent of Americans don’t have enough emergency savings. The survey was completed by Princeton Survey Research Association of more than 1,000 adults and was released by bankrate.com.

Of those surveyed, fewer than 1 in 4 Americans have enough savings to cover at least six months’ expenses. Exactly half have less than three months’ expenses saved up, and 27 percent have no emergency savings whatsoever. According to Bankrate, those numbers have barely budged in the past three years.

The good news, however, is the survey said 30 percent of Americans are feeling better about their debt than they did a year ago — a new high. One in five Americans feel their overall financial situation is worse than a year ago — tying the lowest reading.

Andrea Travillian, a personal finance expert specializing in money management basics and beginner investing, said emergency funds are crucial.

“Emergency funds are one of the most important things to have when it comes to building a solid financial base. The only other thing that comes first is to live on less than you make,” Travillian said.

Travillian said when unexpected emergencies occur, those who don’t have the cash saved up to deal with emergencies instead amass debt.

“This is bad as it can spiral out of control depending on how many emergencies you have, and how quickly you can pay your debt off,” she said. “Because you’re using debt, it increases your monthly payments making it harder and harder to save.”

For Stanley, that unexpected emergency was having to leave her human resources job at a university after being unable to resolve a bad work situation.

Now a freelance writer and editor, Stanley’s goal is start making money before the emergency fund runs out.

Stanley began saving in 1997 when she had a steady, but low-paying, job with benefits. She found she could live modestly on her earnings.

“I had been completely broke for a long time and never wanted to feel that way again,” she said. “I wanted stability and some kind of cushion for car repairs or whatever, and that kept motivating me to save.”

Travillian said it can be difficult to build up emergency savings as we deal with life. That is why she recommends setting up a savings account on an online bank that has low minimums.

“Put every extra dollar in there,” she said. “You do not have to fund all six months at one time.”

Travillian suggests putting tax refunds in that account and selling extra items around the home as well.

Johnathan Ness, a former accountant and author of “Your True Value,” said it is important to learn to live without expensive meals and nights on the town.

“By the time you wake up tomorrow, it won't matter whether you ate at a nice restaurant or went home and made Mexican ... except to your wallet,” he said.

He suggested planning purchases in advance, especially for smaller items.

“A new shirt here that you found funny but didn't need, a cool gizmo that you probably won't use often, or snack and dessert items can add up quickly if you buy them every week,” Ness said.

Actor Paul Cram said it was imperative that he cut out nonessentials since his work comes in stints. He had to learn to say “no” to going out to dinner with friends.

“When I am working as an actor, the pay is really good, but sporadic,” Cram said. “Planning out the budget I needed was the easy part. The hard part was being able to save up that much money while still covering all of my monthly expenses. (But) I am surprised actually with how quickly one can save money. All of those small things that I was spending on, a cup of coffee here, a shirt on sale, once I stopped doing that, I was able to save up the three months’ emergency fund rather quickly.”

Stanley said it took discipline to not buy a new car or update her furniture, but in the end, it was worth it. Three years after she began her journey to fund her savings account, her partner, John, has helped her with utilities and rent — making it easier for her to put extra money aside.

Jennifer Elizabeth Austin-Mathewson is a multimedia journalist, youth motivational speaker and author. She is the mother of four rambunctious boys, which includes her German shepard, Ruger.

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