No emergency fund? Here's how to cope with 4 money problems

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A flat tire. A broken wrist. A faulty dishwasher. When a financial emergency crops up, can you afford the bill?

Maybe not. Although about 60 percent of adults experience a financial emergency each year, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education, most don't have the cash to spare. Forty percent of adults don't have enough in a checking or savings account to handle an unplanned $1,000 expense, according to a 2013 survey from They'd need to borrow the money from friends or family, take out a loan, use a credit card cash advance or employ other strategies to come up with the money.

"When we wake up in the morning, we don't know that we're going to have a flat tire or that the home water heater is going to leak, but we have to be prepared," said Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Financial advisors typically recommend accumulating an emergency fund of at least six months' worth of living expenses. But a rainy-day fund with $500 is a great start—that's enough to see you through many unexpected expenses, and offers a start toward bigger bills, said Paul Golden, a spokesman for NEFE. It's also a confidence booster in an emergency, lessening the chance you'll panic.

Emergency funds aren't the only strategy to help stem the cost of unexpected expenses. With planning, these four common setbacks may be less financially devastating.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 24 Aug. 2014

Car trouble

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Whether it's a fender-bender or a breakdown, 20 percent of adults have unexpected transportation expenses in a given year, according to NEFE.

On the repair side, check to see if your vehicle may still be covered by the automaker's warranty, said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Powertrain warranties, which cover "everything that is involved in making the car continue to go down the road," are commonly in effect for six years or 75,000 miles, he said. Some automakers will even go up to 100,000 miles. It's not necessarily something mechanics will think to ask about—so you should.

Roadside assistance policies can also help ease the costs of a tow or lockout. You might already have coverage through your auto insurance policy or as a perk from the auto manufacturer; if not, a membership to AAA or another program can pay for itself in a single tow, if you have a problem-prone vehicle.

Read More Which membership pays off faster: AAA or Amazon?

Should additional expenses crop up in the course of a routine maintenance visit, do what you'd do for medical care—ask for a second opinion, Reed said. "Ask, 'Does it need to be done now, and if I don't do it, what are the possible consequences?'" he said. You might not really need that fluid change or wheel rotation for another few months (if at all), giving you time to save up.

Home repairs

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Ah, the joys of homeownership—19 percent of consumers reported having an unexpected repair or maintenance issue, according to NEFE.

Your credit card may offer some surprising recourse here. (No, don't charge the repairs.) "Most better credit cards double the manufacturer's warranty, adding up to an extra year," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of advocacy site If you bought that major appliance or furniture on credit, it might still be covered, although issuers often require you provide the original receipt and meet other criteria.

That benefit is also a smart one to consider when planning a purchase, Dworsky said. "It's worth a lot more than a dinky discount for paying with a store credit card," he said. Call your issuer and ask what their coverage entails.

Read More Which home improvements offer the most bang for your buck

Medical care

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Ouch16 percent of people have unanticipated medical bills for an illness or injury, according to NEFE. These expenses can add up fast. Medical debts account for about half of the accounts in collection among U.S. adults.

Particularly if you're uninsured, or looking at a service that isn't covered by insurance, shopping around for medical care can help control costs. This spring, a Change Healthcare analysis found that prices can vary by more than 300 percent on the same service. Prices for a physical therapy office visit, for example, ranged from $62 to $228, a 268 percent difference.

Read More The mistake that's tripling your medical bills

To better plan ahead, consider putting more cash into a medical flexible spending account next year. Only 24 percent of employees who have access to one of these pre-tax accounts fund them, according to benefits administrator WageWorks. Not only will doing so cut your tax bill, but many employers also provide free money in exchange for taking a health screening.

Job Loss

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Getting a pink slip can be financially devastating, and it's something that 11 percent of consumers said they experienced, according to NEFE.

This is one emergency where an emergency fund is absolutely vital, Cunningham said. But it can also help to call your lenders and ask for some leniency if a job loss or other emergency causes you to miss a payment or send in one late. Many lenders will be willing to waive the fee, if you've been an otherwise good consumer, she said. Issuers may also offer short-term hardship programs, with lower interest rates or waived fees.

If the job loss was unexpected, check to see if any of your recent big-ticket purchases can be returned to free up cash, Dworsky said. Some companies' policies can be generous, depending on the purchase. Card brands including Citibank, American Express and Discover also offer so-called "return protection," taking back recently purchased items if the retailer won't.

Read More Five cases when buyer's remorse will cost you big