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Most Americans Lack Reserve Cash to Cover $500 Emergency: Survey

Most Americans don't have enough in savings to cover even a minor emergency costing $500, putting them at risk of financial ruin, a new survey says.
About one-fourth of Americans have no emergency savings, and that’s barely changed in the past four years.
About one-fourth of Americans have no emergency savings, and that’s barely changed in the past four years.DAREK DELMANOWICZ / EPA

Minor emergencies like a busted pipe, flat tire or a root canal happen all the time. But for the majority of Americans, such inconveniences are potential recipes for financial ruin, according to a new survey by finance site

In the survey released on Wednesday, Bankrate found that 63 percent of Americans don’t have enough saved to cover even a $500 financial setback. And just half of higher income respondents (defined as $75,000 or more in annual earnings) said they have enough cash to handle such an emergency.

About a quarter of respondents said they would cut back their spending in the event of such an emergency, and 15 percent would be able to borrow money from family or friends. Another 15 percent, said they would use a credit card to pay for the emergency.

Turning to credit can turn even a small setback into a serious long-term financial problem, said Lauren Berg, a spokeswoman for Simple Finance, which offers online banking services.

“We discourage offloading unexpected expenses onto credit cards because this type of financial behavior means that you’re charged interest when you already don’t have the money to spend,” she said.

Borrowing to get past a rough spot also means you may not have credit available when you really need it, said Sheyna Steiner, a senior investing analyst and reporter at Bankrate.

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“When you really need a line of credit, it may not be there if there are any changes to your credit report,” she said. “One thing that happened during the great recession is that people found their credit lines greatly reduced, so if you are counting on a line of credit being extended to you in your time of need, you may want to think again.”

Even worse than taking on credit card debt to pay for an emergency is turning to options like payday loans in moments of financial desperation, experts say. But with annual interest rates that can run as high as 400 percent, these financial products can put consumers on a downward spiral to financial ruin.

Nor can cash-strapped Americans count on avoiding financial emergencies.

In the survey, only 57 percent made it through the year without contending with any kind of financial emergency.

“Unexpected expenses come up with such frequency that they really shouldn't be unexpected,” said Steiner. “Four in 10 people said that they, or an immediate family member, had experienced a major unplanned expense in the past 12 months.”

For many, though, saving enough to weather a setback is easier said than done. Americans making hefty student loan payments or earning a modest income often find it hard to set aside money.

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Berg, who said she recognizes that “saving money can often feel like a thankless task when you’re faced with debt,” recommends starting small, with a focus on gaining confidence in money management.

“It’s the foundation of our philosophy: that customers should feel confident with their money,” she said. “For just $5.47 a day you can build a $2,000 emergency fund in a year.”

Steiner says it’s even advisable to cut back on debt payments to prioritize saving for an emergency.

“In order to prepare for the inevitable car repair or plumbing issue or leaky roof, dial back your debt payments to the minimum and save up $500 or $1,000 to have that cash available to you,” she said. “… Get that set up and then return to attacking the debt.”