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No savings? No safety

There is a reason trapeze artists use nets: While swinging on a flying trapeze can be glorious, a fall can mean disaster.

But too many Americans act like trapeze artists without nets when it comes to saving. Some 60 percent of American workers said they and/or their spouse have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments, and just 3 percent reported having $75,000 or more, according to research by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates.

Barbara Tantillo, 49, a registered nurse who worked for years for pharmaceutical companies, was decidedly not in that 3 percent. She married young, and the couple soon had three sons. But after 18 years she and her husband divorced. Tantillo was focused on retaining custody of her boys, so she allowed her husband to dictate key terms of the divorce settlement. As a result, while she got the house and the car, she said she also got the bills — and her husband got to keep his pension and savings from the Air Force Reserves.

"If we were still married, that ultimately would have been our savings and our retirement money," Tantillo said. "My name wasn't on the account so I had no access to that money."

After the divorce, money got tighter. Even though Tantillo had been the primary breadwinner, "one of the things I started to find out was even a little bit of a salary, when you don't have it, it does make a difference," she said. Her finances were stressed further as her sons approached college age. When her oldest was accepted to Penn State she took a second job to make ends meet. Savings was far from the top of her priority list.

"One of the big mistakes, lesson learned, that I didn't really think of was putting money away because nothing is going to happen, right?" she said. She was earning enough to keep her family comfortable, and she had disability insurance in case anything happened.

Unfortunately, something did happen about a year after Tantillo's divorce was final: She was in a serious car accident, which led to multiple surgeries and an extended period out of work. Her disability insurance kicked in, but she lost her second job and the insurance payments did not nearly replace her lost income.

"That really started a couple of years worth of downward spiral, especially from a financial perspective," she said.

Tantillo got behind on her mortgage even as her son was due to start at Penn State in a matter of months. She depleted whatever 401(k) savings she had. Bills from her totaled car added to her woes, to the point where she had to borrow money from her oldest son. She also tapped a home equity line of credit on her house, violating the divorce decree, and used credit cards for basic necessities.

"When you can't pay your electric, and you can't pay the phone, and your kids need to eat, you will do what you need to do," she said.

Divorce often wreaks financial havoc, especially for women. Twenty-seven percent of women who divorced over the course of a year had income below $25,000, compared with 17 percent of men, according to a study by the Census Bureau using 2009 data. Divorced women were also significantly more likely to receive public assistance: 23 percent of recently divorced women did, compared with 15 percent of men.

Even when divorced women ramp up their careers after a split, they often have less in retirement income than women who remarried or remained married, according to research by Kenneth Couch, a professor of economics at the University of Connecticut.

Those hardships may explain why Tantillo and others are slow to build retirement savings, but they also point to the fragility of her approach to her finances. One event threw everything off kilter.

"You have to be really disciplined as a single mom to keep saying, 'well, I have to save this so I can afford to put 3 percent into my 401(k) plan,'" said Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, known as WISER. But as Tantillo found out when her boys wanted money for extracurricular activities and the like, "it's really hard."

Often, Hounsell added, women "want to save for their kids' future and not their own, not thinking that you have to do some of each."

Luckily for Tantillo, her health improved enough to allow her back in the workforce, and she is slowly rebuilding her finances with the help of a credit counseling service. Together they have found ways to get her credit score higher and she has finally managed to refinance her mortgage. She is also starting to save again.

"I've learned that unfortunately you have to be prepared," she said. "I do like to shop, but I make sure that I have money in the bank. I don't try to live paycheck to paycheck. I make sure that the bills are paid."

She has also changed how she deals with her sons' needs, trying to give them more financial and logistical responsibility. And she feels more in control of her own financial destiny.

"Don't give up," Tantillo said. "You can do it. Even when you think you can't."

If you've learned a valuable financial lesson that you would like to share, please email us at livelearn@cnbc.com