When disaster strikes, such as an unexpected layoff, many Americans aren't prepared to deal with the financial consequences.
A new survey from Bankrate found that only 29 percent of Americans have enough emergency savings to last more than six months and just 18 percent have sufficient savings to cover three to five months, meaning only 47 percent of Americans — less than half — are truly prepared for an emergency.
In fact, the survey found that 45 percent of Americans could only make it three months or less if they had to live off their savings.
Notably, however, a majority of survey respondents don't seem alarmed by their lack of savings. Nearly 25 percent of Americans report feeling "very comfortable" with the amount they have, while 37 percent are "somewhat comfortable."
But this deficiency could lead to trouble for many. According to Bankrate's financial security index survey from January 2018, 34 percent of American households experienced a major unexpected expense over the past year, yet only 39 percent of survey respondents said they would be able to cover a $1,000 setback using their savings.
Emergency funds are important because they provide a cushion to prevent other financial disasters and help you reach other goals, says best-selling author Dave Ramsey. Something is always bound to go wrong, but having a rainy-day fund in place will help soften the blow.
"Car blows up. Transmission goes out. You bury a loved one. Grown kids move home again. Life happens, so be ready," Ramsey writes in "The Total Money Makeover." "This is not a surprise."
Building a solid emergency fund before paying off debt or working toward other goals is crucial because it prevents bumps in the road from completely derailing the journey, Ramsey explains.
But how much should you have set aside? Most experts recommend building up an emergency fund of at least three to six months' worth of living expenses.
"The goal should be to have enough emergency savings to cover six months' expenses — and anything less than that should cause discomfort," Greg McBride, CFA and Bankrate chief financial analyst, says in the survey.
Suze Orman, financial expert and former CNBC television host, offers a different take. She says even six months' worth of expenses isn't enough to feel secure.
What if you lose your job and can't find another one for a year? What if you're hit with an out-of-the-blue medical emergency? A million potential scenarios could drain your savings without warning, so it's better to have at least eight to 12 months' worth of living expenses squirreled away, Orman told the audience at the 2017 eMerge Americas conference.
"You need as much money in the bank that makes you feel secure," she says. "Don't go fooling yourself, 'It's okay, I can charge on a credit card, I can do this.' You should have at least eight months. Not six months, not three months, I'd like to see you have eight months to one year."
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!