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5 Ways to Build Emergency Savings When You’re Broke

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How’s your emergency savings stash looking?

If you said nonexistent, don’t worry. You’re totally not alone.

Only 40% of Americans have enough in savings to handle a $1,000 emergency

Because let’s face it, saving money is hard sometimes. Especially when you have kids.

And if you’re on a tight budget already saving some money for the occasional rainy day can feel impossible. But when it comes to your finances, it’s not a step you can skip.

Why Emergency Savings Matters (Especially for Families)

build emergency savingsMy emergency fund has saved me more than once.

Right after I bought a home in 2016, my HVAC system conked out. It cost me $5,000 to replace it but I was able to cover it from emergency savings.

I’ve dipped into my emergency savings other times, too. To make car repairs, fix a leaking roof (home ownership is totally the best, right?) and take one of our dogs to the vet when she got a raging ear infection.

It’s been there to save me every time.

Emergency savings is financial insurance. It’s your just-in-case-something-goes-wrong money. 

And you know, something always goes wrong, doesn’t it? It may not be a major thing but even a small unexpected expense could send you scurrying for your credit card.

Now you’re in an even tougher position to save because you’ve got to pay back what you borrowed.

If your budget is already tight, that can put even more strain on your money. And that’s an especially big challenge if you’re a one-income family.

I get it. It can be a vicious cycle.

But you can break it. You can build up your emergency savings, even when you feel like you don’t have a dime to spare. 

How Much Money Do You Need to Save for Emergencies?

That’s a good question and there’s no perfect answer.

Some financial experts say three months’ worth of expenses is enough; others might say you need six or nine months’ worth of expenses socked away. 

As a freelancer, I have well over a year’s worth of expenses in my emergency fund.

Running an online business is great. But just in case all my clients drop off the face of the earth at the same time I want to make sure I have enough in savings to cover the bills until work starts flowing in again.

If you’re starting from zero with saving money for emergencies, it’s totally fine to go small.

Aim for saving $500 or $1,000. Even $100 in savings is something, especially if you’ve struggled to save anything up to this point.

Once you get that first little bit of cash tucked away in emergency savings, you can work on growing it.

And that’s what I want to help you with. So here are my best tips for growing your emergency fund when money is tight.

5 Tips for Growing Emergency Savings From Scratch

1. Put Your Budget Under the Microscope

I talk about budgeting on this blog because it really is the key to having any kind of financial security.

Your budget is your plan for spending each month. And it’s also a tool for saving.

If you don’t have a budget yet, here’s the quick and dirty version of how to make one:

  • Add up all of your income for the month, including money you have coming in from a full-time job, part-time gig, freelance work or a side hustle
  • Total up all of your expenses for the month and that means everything you spend money on
  • Subtract the second number from the first one

That’s a really simplified explanation of how to make a budget but that’s enough to get you started on the path to saving.

Once you’ve got a budget in place, it’s time to take a closer look at what you’re making and what you’re spending every month.

Start With Your Income

  • How much money is coming into the household total?
  • Do you have any business income?
  • If you’re a single mama, what about child support or alimony?

Look at the total number, then consider how consistent your income is.

Are you more or less able to count on the same amount of money each money, or do you have more money to work with some months than others?

Go Over Your Spending

Divvy up your expenses based on what has to be paid each month to live and what you spend on everything else. 

Look at the have-to-be-paid bills first. 

That means your rent or mortgage payment, utilities, groceries, insurance, daycare, etc. Is there anywhere that you can carve out some savings?

It doesn’t have to be a huge amount. If you can trim $5 a month off your light bill and $10 a month off groceries, that’s a step in the right direction.

Now, move on to what you’re spending on everything else. This is where you really have the potential to make a difference in your budget.

Go over every single thing you spend each month that’s not considered a bill.

If you’re already on a bare-bones budget, there may not be a lot of ground to cover. But even on the tightest of budgets, it’s still possible to find a few bucks to save.

When I was a newly single mom, coupons were a godsend for saving. I used coupons for literally everything, and still do because I see no reason to pay full price if I don’t have to.

I got used to buying store brands and my kids’ clothes came from the thrift store. Walmart clothes were a luxury. 

I saved on gas by staying home as much as possible. If we went out to do something fun, it was to a park or a free event locally.

My income wasn’t much more than my expenses but I was able to save a couple of hundred dollars a month by basically being a cheapskate. It wasn’t a lot but it was enough to get my emergency savings fund started.

2. Decide Where to Keep Your Emergency Savings

Keeping your emergency fund in your checking account is convenient. It’s also a huge mistake. 

It’s easier to spend that money on non-emergencies when it’s sitting there tempting you. 

Opening a separate savings account that’s linked to your checking account is the better choice. And an online savings account can help you grow your money faster. 

Online banks tend to have lower overhead fees than brick-and-mortar banks. That means they tend to charge fewer fees and they can pay you higher rates on your savings.

If you’re looking for a savings account recommendation, I like CIT Bank.

Their Premier High Yield Savings Account has a 1.55 APY and no monthly fees. You just need $100 to open your account and get started.

You can also save in a money market account or CD. CIT Bank offers CDS with up to a 2.40% APY.

The only catch is that CDs are time deposit accounts. When you open a CD, you commit to leaving that money alone for a set time period.

If you have to break into your CD for an emergency before the time is up, you could pay a penalty or fee to get your money.

3. Automate Your Savings Plan

Saving is a hard habit to get into if you’re not used to it, no lie. 

“Pay yourself first” is a mantra you’ll hear from a lot of finance experts but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Automating can go a long way toward solving that problem. 

There are a few different ways you can automate your savings. 

For example, if you get paid through direct deposit you could ask your HR department to reroute some of it into a savings account instead of putting it all in checking.

Or you could set up automatic transfers through your bank account every payday. This way, money gets moved to savings automatically so you don’t have time to spend.

A third option, and the one that might be easiest if you’re struggling to grow your emergency fund is letting an app save money for you.

Acorns, for example, scans your bank account and rounds up transactions. Your spare change is saved in an investment account. 

It’s super easy and you don’t have to do anything other than sign up for an account and link your checking to start to saving.

Digit works the same way. The Digit app checks your linked bank account and moves money you’re not using from checking to savings.

These are easy-peasy options for adding to your emergency savings. And really, when you’re trying to save easy might be the best thing.

4. Save the Extras

If you’re really struggling to make your budget work because your bills are too high or your income is too low, you can use found money to build your emergency savings. 

So what’s found money?

It’s basically any money that comes your way that you weren’t budgeting for or expecting.

That covers things like:

  • Tax refunds
  • Cash birthday gifts
  • Rebates
  • Pay raises
  • Returned deposits
  • Cash bonuses you get for opening a new checking account

It doesn’t really matter how big or small these “extra” amounts are. Even $5 helps.

It just matters that you commit to saving it.

In fact, it’s actually better when you’re dealing with small amounts because you may be less tempted to spend any of it.

If you’re getting a $3,000 tax refund, for example, it’s a lot harder mentally to pledge it all to savings when you want to blow some of it on a family vacation or go shopping. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t spend anything when you’re trying to grow your emergency savings, though. I’m all for treating yourself occasionally.

Just remember to keep the right balance between spending extra money and saving it.

grow your savings

5. Make More Money to Save More Money

If you’ve tried all these tips and you still can’t eke out even $5 a month to save, it’s time to think about what you can do to bring in more money each month.

There are so many ways to do this and a lot of them you can do from home. 

For example, check out these online business ideas that are great for moms:

There are things you can do offline to make extra money too, like offering childcare in your home for other moms. Or you could start a dog-walking business through Rover.

Starting a blog is another option for making money online.

The four biggest ways you can make money blogging are affiliate marketing, sponsored posts, ads and selling your own products.

Now, let me be upfront and say that there can be a HUGE learning curve with blogging. I’m definitely still figuring things out.

But a blog could be a great way to bring in extra cash from home and grow your emergency savings.

(And if you’re ready to start a blog, check out my step by step tutorial, to get set up with blog hosting!)

Bottom line, I am a serious fan of taking charge of your income.

When I became a single mom, I knew I didn’t want to have to work a mindless job I hated just to pay the bills. I launched my freelance writing business and never looked back.

Apart from the flexibility I have working from home, the financial payoff has been amazing. And I’ve been able to really grow my savings and income. 

Which is what you want to do too, right?

So if you haven’t thought about it yet, really consider whether starting an online business or side hustle could be just what you need to start piling up some cash. 

Don’t Stay Stuck at Zero!

If your emergency savings balance is a big fat goose egg, it’s time to kick into high gear. 

Do you have a killer tip for building up an emergency fund on a tight budget?

Head to the comments and tell me about it, then pin and share this post if it helped you!

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Hi there, I'm Rebecca, homeschooling single mom of two. I built a six-figure freelance writing business from home and now I teach busy moms how to save money, make money and master their time! Follow me on Pinterest and Twitter and don't forget to check out the Resource Library--it's packed with tons of free tools to help make the busy mom life easier!


  1. I am in the depths of the learning curve of blogging, too. But it is a fun and challenging side hustle. Budgeting…it is so important to have some control and know where everything goes, figure out how to earn a little extra here and there. And maybe cut back on Starbucks!

    • Hi Jenny! Blogging is work but I do enjoy the challenges. I’m hoping to turn it into a money-maker down the line once I learn the ropes. Budgeting is a must for managing your money, especially if you’re trying to get some emergency savings together. Even having a few bucks in the bank can make a difference for your peace of mind!

  2. Hi Rebecca. Love the article! Just wanted to give you an option for an online bank that we have in Canada (in case you want to mention one for your Canadian readers) . Simplii Financial offers both savings and chequing accounts with no fees. The interest rate for their savings account are higher than the big banks.

    • Hi Minda! Thanks so much for the recommendation, I didn’t realize you were in Canada. Is this an online bank or a brick-and-mortar bank?

  3. These are great tips for building emergency savings! I absolutely love the idea of saving up any “found money” that comes your way. Since this money isn’t something that we are relying on and likely isn’t accounted for in the budget, it makes sense to stash it away! I also agree with the idea of paying yourself first. Automation is key!

    • Thanks, Megan. Saving found money and unexpected windfalls, large or small, can definitely be a powerful way to grow your savings even when your budget is on the tight side.

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