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Survey: One-fourth of Americans have no emergency savings

Americans ages 30 to 49 least likely to have any savings even though they need them most, financial analysts say

More than a quarter of all Americans would be completely unprepared financially if they fall ill or have some other kind of emergency, a new study from Bankrate.com revealed Monday.

Bankrate’s June 2014 Financial Security Index, a telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults across the United States, found that 26 percent of consumers have no emergency savings at all, a far cry from the recommended six months or more of expenses. The findings are surprising because many analysts had expected Americans’ saving habits to change after the Great Recession, which showed the importance of having money stashed away.

Even more surprising, Americans ages 30 to 49 are the least likely to have any type of savings, and many experts say those are the years when the rainy day fund is critical.

“Those are high-spending years. Those are the people who have the house with the three kids and the dog,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.

“They are the ones who need it the most. Some people may at one time have had a cushion or emergency savings, and unemployment wiped them out. But for a lot of people, they are living beyond their means.”

Forty percent of the African-Americans surveyed reported they had no savings at all; 21 percent of whites said the same.

In terms of education, 36 percent of people with a high school education or less said they had no savings, compared with 10 percent for college graduates.

People ages 18 to 30 were the most likely to have a sufficient amount saved, though McBride attributed this to a lower cost of living because the majority of these individuals were either college students, young adults living at home with their parents or splitting the bills with roommates.

“Nonetheless, give credit where credit is due. They’ve learned to save money,” McBride said.

Twenty-four percent of people have less than three months' worth of expenses saved, while 17 percent said they've saved three to five months' worth. Just 23 percent say they have enough in their savings to cover six months of expenses or more should they need it.

While the lack of savings is serious, the issue is not cut and dried. Saundra Davis, a financial coach and the founder of Sage Financial Solutions in San Francisco, said in a news release that those who earn more are often able to save more easily, whereas some people are left strapped for cash. After they have paid all the monthly bills, rent and other expenses there simply is not any money left to save.

Another factor is that people will often trade in long-term saving for more short-term goals, such as paying off student loan debt or other financial goals, Davis said.

The issue of income inequality is increasingly surfacing across the country as Congress grapples with the Obama administration over raising the minimum rage to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25 an hour. Several U.S. cities have taken their own actions to raise it. For example, starting in 2015, Seattle will have the nation’s highest minimum wage, at $15 an hour.

Still, even those with larger salaries struggle to save.

While the likelihood of socking away sufficient savings increasing as salary goes up, the Bankrate study found that only 46 percent of those making $75,000 a year or more had enough saved to cover six months of expenses.

“It’s not just living on credit,” McBride said. “Even when all the credit is gone, Americans like their stuff. They spend everything that comes in the door.”

However, it’s never too late to start saving, the experts at Bankrate say.

According to McBride, the best thing to do is set aside money from each paycheck for your savings automatically through direct deposit into your savings account, and look for ways to cut unnecessary expenses. He also suggests finding ways to increase your income via freelance work or taking on a second job so you can boost your savings.

“Pay yourself first,” McBride said. “You can’t commingle it with your checking account. It has to be a dedicated savings account.”

Ken Hevert, vice president of retirement products at Fidelity Investments, said in a news release that starting to save for a smaller goal is advisable, noting that six months' worth of savings is “a lot of money.” If the goal is too large or unattainable, people will not try to reach it, Hevert said.

Regardless of the strategy, most of the experts agree on one thing: people should be saving something, no matter the amount. 

“The first thing is that you’re getting that savings accomplished right off the bat,” McBride said.

“The second thing is you’re forcing yourself to live on less than you make, and that is the essence of building wealth over time.”

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