Even in Strong Economy, Most Families Don’t Have Enough Emergency Savings

Regardless of their income, families with no emergency savings are more likely to suffer financial hardship, said Catherine S. Harvey, the author of the AARP report.

Ms. Harvey cautioned that just because people didn’t have a specific emergency savings account didn’t mean they lacked a plan to deal with unexpected expenses — even if it was borrowing from relatives and friends. But it’s clear, she said, that more must be done to promote emergency savings to make families more financially resilient.

Emergency savings are “necessary to meet the obvious issues that arise on a consistent basis for all of us, whether it’s costs for our home, car or health,” said George Barany, director of America Saves, a campaign that is managed by the Consumer Federation of America.

One idea gaining traction is to help people contribute to emergency funds through their place of work, much as employees contribute to workplace retirement plans like 401(k) accounts.

Prudential Financial, for example, last year began offering “sidecar” saving accounts, which allow employees to contribute after-tax money for emergency purposes alongside their pretax savings in 401(k) plans. The program helps workers avoid taking out loans or hardship withdrawals from their retirement plan, which can hurt long-term savings, said Harry Dalessio, head of institutional retirement plan services at Prudential.

A dozen of its corporate clients offer employees the savings accounts, Prudential said, and 10 more are expected to add them by spring.

SunTrust Banks offers employees a $1,000 contribution if they complete a financial education course and make automatic transfers from each paycheck to an emergency savings account. (The accounts aren’t linked to a retirement plan and can be opened at any bank.) The goal is for each employee to build a $2,000 reserve to draw on as needed, said Brian Nelson Ford, SunTrust’s financial well-being executive.