Build emergency savings first. Then pay down that debt.

Published 5:15 pm Monday, February 23, 2015

WASHINGTON – The emergency cash fund is supposed to help people keep up with their bills after an emergency or a job loss. But for many Americans living on low wages or paying down debt, building a fund is out of reach.

Roughly one fourth of consumers have more credit card debt than emergency savings, according to a survey released Monday by Another 13 percent don’t have savings or credit card debt, which leaves them vulnerable to taking on debt when emergencies happen.

“Too many people don’t have enough emergency savings,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at

Not everyone is in the red: 58 percent of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt, up from 51 percent in 2014 and 55 percent in 2013.

Consumers became much better about paying down debt after the financial crisis. Delinquency rates for most types of loans are falling, with the exception of student loans and car loans.

Most consumers slashed their borrowing during the downturn, but rebuilding credit can take time. Many consumers are struggling with subprime credit scores, partly because they are still waiting for blunders they made during the crisis – such as delinquencies and foreclosures – to clear from their credit reports. That can take seven years.

Now that the economy is improving, more people are focused on saving, McBride says, but they are struggling to make progress because of stagnant wages. “They know they have work to do,” he says, “they just haven’t been able to move the needle.”

Saving can be especially difficult for someone who is still paying down debt. Some financial advisers recommend consumers set aside money to cover a few months worth of expenses before they aggressively pay down their debt. That way, if something goes wrong, they have a cash cushion to spend before they turn to their credit cards. Once the debt is clear, payments that used to go toward loans can be stashed into the savings account.

The easiest way to save is to have the money deducted automatically from your paycheck into a savings account. “If you wait until the end of the month to save what’s left over,” McBride says, “nothing will be left over.”