64% of Americans Don’t Have $1,000 in Savings

I know setting aside 8-12 months of living expenses is impossible for a lot of people but put away $1,000. Oh, and pay down your credit cards, too.

Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME

Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME

If you suddenly needed $1,000 to cover an unexpected expense, how would you come up with the money? In a new survey, only 36% of Americans said they’d simply turn to their trusty savings accounts. The rest would be forced to hit up friends, family, or loan operations for the money, get a cash advance on a credit card, disregard payments on monthly expenses, or pawn some of their stuff.

The recent online poll from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling asked people where they would turn if they suddenly needed $1,000 for an unplanned expense. A mere 36% of the 2,700 respondents said they’d just withdraw the money from their savings account—which is exactly what such a rainy day fund is for. The rest answered with one of these other options:

Take out a loan = 9%

Borrow from friends or family = 17%

Cash advance on your credit card = 9%

Disregard other monthly expenses = 17%

Sell or pawn assets = 12%

While it’s not entirely clear, I suppose the assumption is that this theoretical $1,000 is needed in cash, and needed immediately. Meaning: You couldn’t just put the expense on a credit card and figure out how to pay it off within a month’s time. It’s also noteworthy that online polls like this one aren’t necessarily as random (or accurate) as those conducted over the phone. In any event, the data is alarming. As NFCC spokesperson Gail Cunningham puts it:

“Selecting any option other than taking the money from savings should be a red flag.”

In another recent survey, just 24% of Americans reported having a six-month emergency fund—while an equal number (24%) said they had no emergency savings whatsoever.

(MORE: Do You Bank Online? You Probably Pay More For the Convenience Than You Think)

All of this is particularly disturbing nowadays because, as a lifehacker post reported, the old rule of prudent saving—always maintaining a three- to six-month emergency fund—is probably insufficient today. Why? The average length of unemployment is over 40 weeks lately, meaning that someone suddenly laid off shouldn’t assume they’d be able to find another job within that old three- to six-month window. It’s likely to take much longer to become gainfully employed once again.

Therefore, it’s arguable that you should have an emergency fund to cover expenses for eight to 12 months nowadays. That’s easier said than done, especially given that most people seem to have trouble coming up with $1,000.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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