Almost three in 10 Americans say they have no emergency savings, according to a survey just released by Bankrate.com.
That's the highest number since Bankrate began tracking savings five years ago, and the culprit is a lag in income growth, which has failed to increase even as stocks and home prices have recovered.
"The missing link in the economic recovery over the last few years has been the lack of growth in household income," said Bankrate chief financial analyst Greg McBride. "That makes it very difficult for people to ramp up their savings."
And every time the car dies, an appliance breaks down or an unexpected medical expense crops up, families' funds dwindle without being replaced.
"When you combine tight household budgets with the inevitability of unexpected expenses… they've wiped it out completely, or they have less than what they had a few years ago," McBride said.
The implications are potentially serious, since the alternatives to paying for an unexpected expense are generally much more expensive, McBride said. "Without enough emergency savings, you don't have an adequate buffer between you and high-interest debt."
Bankrate, which conducted its survey earlier this month, found that in addition to the 29 percent of Americans who have no savings, another 21 percent have less than three months worth of expenses saved, for a combined 50 percent. Last month, the Federal Reserve's own, separate survey of savings in its Report on the Economic Well-Being found that in 2014, 55 percent of respondents had less than three months of expenses saved. The Fed, however, found that the savings rate had improved since 2013, when 61 percent of respondents said they had three months or less of expenses saved.