Financial experts say your emergency fund should be big enough to cover at least three to six months' worth of expenses in case you get sick and can't work or you lose your job. Some financial advisors say an emergency fund robust enough to cover 12 months' worth of expenses is even better, but that's looking a lot like a pipe dream: A recent Bankrate survey revealed that just 24 percent of Americans have enough savings to cover at least six months of expenses, and 50 percent have less than three months' expenses saved up. And 27 percent are living paycheck to paycheck, without any savings at all.
The consequences of not having enough in emergency savings can be dire depending on the nature of your emergency. You may have to rely on credit cards if you have them, or the kindness of friends and relatives, or a high-interest short-term loan.
The idea of saving enough for a half a year of expenses can be so daunting that some people don't even try. How much you really need in your rainy-day fund depends on your circumstances. For example, if you and your spouse have kids, and are only one source of income, you should maximize your emergency savings. If you're in a two-income household and typically spend less than you earn, a smaller emergency fund may be fine. To determine how much you need, add up all your monthly expenses, including fixed payments and fluctuating costs such as food, then multiply that number by three or six to get a ballpark estimate.
Tips to Build Up Your Emergency Fund
To dig in and build your emergency fund, you need to address both your income and expenses.
To increase your income, consider some of these tried-and-true or off-the-wall ideas:Adjust your withholding. If you regularly get a hefty refund from the IRS, you may want to adjust your withholding to put you closer to the break-even point on your tax bill. You can divert the extra income directly to savings.
Get a temp or part-time job. It's the most straightforward way to bring home some extra cash.
Offer your services to parents or pet owners. Responsible, reliable babysitters, pet sitters, and house sitters are hot commodities in many areas.
Sell your stuff on Craigslist or at a yard sale. If you've got clothes, computer equipment, musical instruments, or just about anything that you're never going to use again, you can usually find a buyer.
Pawn your jewelry. If you have items of particular value, you can pawn them for a loan or just to get the cash.
Scrounge for stuff to sell. While you may not want to dig through a dumpster, people often leave valuable items out for pickup on trash day that you can turn into cash.
Rent out your car or your parking space. You can bring in cash by letting other people drive your car through sites like RelayRides and JustShareIt, or rent out your space with ParkingPanda.
Sell your blood plasma or your hair. You can sell the plasma from your blood as often as twice a week. If you have long and lush hair, you can sell that too.
Reducing your expenses can also help you find the money to sweep as little as $100 or month or 10 percent or more of your income into a savings account. To save more, try these ideas:
Pay yourself first. Set up an automatic transfer from your paycheck into your savings account every week or every month and you'll be less likely to notice the missing cash. Even better, once you've finished making payments on a big-ticket item, such as a car payment, a student loan, or your credit card debt, just shift that payment to your savings account instead.
Consolidate your savings. It may be just psychological, but keeping an eye on all your funds in one place can increase your savings discipline. Instead of tracking your money in multiple accounts, you can focus on just one.
Go on a 30-day spending diet. Little expenses like your daily latte, medium-cost items like a weekly pedicure, and splurges like theater tickets all cut into the money you have available for savings. Try a one-month "no spending" diet and eliminate everything but essential expenses to give your savings a big boost.
Quit your vices. The website CostofYourVices.com asks you how much you spend on things like smoking, drinking, buying lottery tickets, and eating burgers to estimate your annual spending. Skipping a daily lottery ticket can save you $365 a year and even switching from soda to tap water can save hundreds.
Bring in a roommate. Splitting the rent with someone else for a year or two makes a big difference in your cash flow. You can also occasionally bring in paying guests if you have a spare room to rent, with sites like Airbnb.com.
Bargain-shop for clothes, groceries, and household items. Even if you're not ready to be a couponing queen, you can save by watching for sales and trying out consignment stores and flea markets.
Do an annual financial checkup. Get out all your insurance policies, your cable bill, your Internet bill, and your phone bill at least once a year and find out if you can save money on your services. Even if you're paying small service fees for, say, upgraded TV channels, Spotify, and Netflix every month, see how much you can save by eliminating the services you don't really use.
Motley Fool contributor Michele Lerner has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Netflix.