If you’re used to walking around without any money in your wallet, then maybe the college habit of surviving on ramen noodles made a big impact on you. Either that, or you’re so adept at using banking apps and debit cards that you really don’t see the need for carrying more than $20 on you.
But when it comes to emergency savings, that’s another story, at least for some. Ask any young adult whether it’s a good idea to have such a stash on hand, and you’ll hear an overwhelming number of “yes” votes. But not everyone’s ready for a potential financial calamity, according to a new report by Bankrate.com.
The report, based on telephone interviews with more than 1,000 adults, reveals that just 23 percent of Americans have emergency savings to cover six months of expenses.
Worse, 26 percent of all Americans have no emergency savings whatsoever.
There’s some good news for the Money Under 30 contingent, though: 18-30 year-olds are the most likely to have up to five months worth of expenses saved.
“That’s one of the bright spots in the survey,” says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “It’s probably a function of low expenses: they live at home, or have roommates or lower expenses.”
The results broke down this way: 32 percent had some emergency savings, but less than would cover three months’ expenses. And an additional 22 percent had three to five months’ expenses.
And it’s not exactly the Ramen Noodle Effect at work, either. “Give them credit where credit is due,” McBride says. “They’ve had a front-row seat to the recession, and they’ve managed to learn something from it. They’ve put some money away and that will bode very well for their futures.”
Education apparently has something to do with it, too: 36 percent of people with a high school education or less said they had no emergency savings, compared with 10 percent of college grads.
But before you break out the six-pack of PBR to celebrate, take note that another portion of our readership doesn’t fare so well in the Bankrate report. In fact, they’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. That is: People between 30 and 49 are more likely than any other age group to have no emergency savings.
What’s going on here? Is age 30 some sort of magical dividing line between smooth sailing and a sinking ship? Not necessarily, but as McBride puts it, “Ages 30 through 49 are high-spending years when expenses often rise faster than emergency savings can keep up.”
Think about it: If you’re getting married, having babies, leasing or buying a new car, or purchasing your first home, you’re taking on added expenses and debt. Some people do all of these things, and that can create huge financial strain no matter how much income you bring home.
In fact, higher income doesn’t necessarily make much of a difference. The overall average starting salary for Class of 2013 college graduates was $45,327 (up 2.4 percent from 2012), according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
But let’s say you’re household makes at least 40 percent more than that—$75,000 or higher. The Bankrate report shows that fewer than half of those in that bracket (just 46 percent) currently have a six-month savings cushion.
“Having insufficient emergency income is a pervasive issue,” McBride says. “And the numbers have not changed for better or worse for four years in a row. Even prior to the recession, we’d asked the question once or twice and it was a pretty similar result.”
But this time around, the reason for the emergency savings drought has shifted. “Back before the recession, people didn’t recognize the importance of savings: They used credit cards home equity lines of credit. But the recession changed all that. People recognize the need for emergency savings now. They’re just not making any progress.” In fact, the percentage of Americans with at least three months’ expenses in savings declined from 45 percent last year to just 40 percent this year.
If you’re in the position of having little or no emergency savings, what can you do to reverse the tide and catch up? Consider these action points:
1. Take the idea of emergency savings seriously.
It’s understandable that youth means feeling invincible. But it only takes one medical emergency, a job loss or an event beyond your control to wipe out everything you have. In those cases, having an emergency fund could mean the difference between surviving and struggling.
2. Use direct deposit to your advantage.
“The first thing you have to do is get in the habit of savings, and the best way to do that is to set up a direct deposit from your paycheck into a dedicated savings account,” McBride says. “If you try to wait until the end of the month to see what’s left over, usually nothing is left over.” That’s great advice, you should always pay yourself first. A savings account is great place to keep your emergency fund, but they just aren’t paying very much interest these days.
However, there actually are some interest-bearing checking accounts that will also work to house your emergency fund.
3. Adjust your budget to make room for emergency savings.
“You’ve got to boost your income or cut back expenses,” McBride says. “That means working freelance, getting a second job, or taking a long hard look at your expenses and seeing where you can cut back.”
I learned how to practice what I’m preaching here the hard way. During a recent health scare, I realized I was one of those people with little or no emergency savings. Today, I have five months worth, and it’s gone a long way towards giving me peace of mind.
How much should be in your emergency fund? Use our calculator to find out!
How does your emergency savings compare to average? Are you ahead of or behind the curve? Let us know in a comment.