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Not financially ready for an emergency? How to build a fund

If you are working regularly you may be able save up an emergency fund before you even see money. |

If you are working regularly, you may be able to save up an emergency fund before you even see the money. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 3, 2013 12:15PM

American finances are running on empty. The new statistics showing how few people have an emergency savings reserve are troubling — but not shocking. Everyone has a friend or family member who has faced tough times over these past few years. And now everyone sees the value of having savings instead of debt.

There is no “magic wand” to create a savings reserve when you’re just getting by. At that point, you just have to hope and pray that there isn’t an emergency need for cash. In an emergency, cash is always expensive, with high rates for credit card debt and home equity loans almost impossible to get anymore.

But if you are still working — and spending everything you earn — there may be some ways you can divert a regular sum of money before you see it and spend it.

Have your paycheck directly deposited in your bank account — and have your bank take a small sum from each paycheck and put it into a good old-fashioned savings account. It won’t earn a lot of interest, but it will be “out of the way” and less likely to be spent.

Rarely recommended but surely one way to make sure you don’t spend it all: Ask your employer to take more money out of your paycheck for income tax withholding. Yes, you’re making an interest-free loan to the government — but it will result in a tax refund next year.

Contribute to a Roth IRA, which means you don’t get a tax deduction. I’ve tried to keep this a secret so you won’t tap into your retirement fund, but no matter what your age, you can withdraw your contributions (but not the earnings) penalty-free from a Roth IRA.

If your problem is self-discipline, these ideas will help you build a savings reserve for emergencies. But if you truly can’t find a penny to spare, get some help. Call the National Foundation for Consumer Credit at (800) 388-2227 to be connected to the nearest local office. Their service is not just for those on the edge of bankruptcy. The accredited counselors offer helpful suggestions for re-organizing your finances so you can find the money to save.

A little bit saved on a regular basis goes a long way toward buying peace of mind. That’s the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is the Chicago Sun-Times’ nationally syndicated financial columnist, and a registered investment adviser. Post personal finance questions on her blog at and

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