This workplace perk could make it easier to save for emergencies

  • Many Americans do not have enough saved to cover emergency expenses.
  • Instead, they often turn to costly sources to borrow money, such as credit cards, 401(k) plans or payday loans.
  • Some employers are testing out new emergency savings options that would allow you to put away money alongside your retirement savings.

If your car breaks down or you get sick, do you have enough money saved to cover the unexpected expense?

If you're like many Americans, the answer is probably no.

A recent survey from personal finance website Bankrate found that just 40 percent of Americans have enough saved to cover a $1,000 unexpected expense.

Rainy day money savings
Phil Ashley | Getty Images

Research from Prudential found that 60 percent of families have experienced some kind of financial emergency in the past year.

What's more, the median American household's liquid net worth is just about $813, according to Prudential.

When faced with a cash crunch, individuals tend to turn to their retirement accounts through loans or hardship withdrawals, credit cards or payday loans.

"If you don't have that buffer, it could be a time of enormous stress. And in that time of stress, often people will tap sources that are not ideal for them," said Phil Waldeck, president of Prudential Retirement.

That has prompted Prudential to launch a new option for emergency savings that can be added alongside its retirement plans. The savings is an after-tax contribution that allows employees to automatically put money away in low-cost investments such as money market or so-called stable value funds.

Prudential's emergency feature lets individuals save anywhere from $500 to six months' worth of expenses, depending on their income and goals. The IRS has a $56,000 limit for 2019 on the total amount participants can contribute to their retirement plans through a combination of pre and post-tax savings.

The company launched the feature last summer. So far, about a dozen businesses are trying it out.

MGM Studios, for example, has implemented the Prudential savings tool.

The television and film company did a "huge push" of the feature in employee meetings last year, said Tab Haas-Winkelman, executive director of human resources at MGM Studios, with 750 employees.

"We were flabbergasted at how many people actually did it," Haas-Winkelman said. "We were really surprised with how many people put another 1 percent or 2 percent in, after tax, just to build that cushion should something come up down the road."

Early stages

It is still too early to see the full results of the new option, as no participating employees have taken withdrawals yet, according to Haas-Winkelman. The emergency savings tool is available to all workers on the MGM Studios payroll.

Participation has two big plusses for employees, Haas-Winkelman said. They can make more money on their investments than they would with a regular savings account. They also do not have to pay back any money they withdraw from their emergency savings.

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It is also too early to tell how widely these kinds of retirement plan features will be adopted.

Empower Retirement, which is part of Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Company, tried offering emergency savings alongside its retirement plans. The company no longer provides that feature. Empower continues to provide educational resources around emergency savings, according to a spokesman.

Because there is so much leakage from retirement plans, anything that lets people save money for emergencies could help reduce that, according to Aron Szapiro, director of policy research at Morningstar.

"As these are experimented with, we'll learn a lot about the degree to which they work," Szapiro said. "The idea is quite promising."

Enabling employees to develop better savings habits can improve their productivity and ability to focus at work, according to Prudential's Waldeck.

"This is aligned with not only what employers want to do in terms of doing the right thing," Waldeck said. "It is also aligned with what is good for their business, which is helping their work force be more resilient."

Financial advantages

Employer-provided emergency savings tools address Americans' savings shortfall in the number one place where they receive their financial education: the workplace, according to Aaron Pottichen, senior vice president at Alliant Retirement Consulting.

These savings plans also make it possible for workers to set it and forget it, essentially having a certain amount of money taken from their pay on a regular basis.

The result is that the employees get used to not having that money in their pay checks. Their emergency funds, in the meantime, grow over time.

If your employer does not offer an emergency savings plan, you can still implement a similar strategy by automating savings on your own.

Most savings accounts will allow you to schedule automatic withdrawals based on your pay schedule. Online savings accounts typically offer the highest rates, with rates as high as 2.25 percent.