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Many Americans don't have a cash cushion

Grownups need more than a piggy bank for savings. “Today” financial editor Jean Chatzky has advice on how to build an emergency nest egg.

It's official — and it's abysmal. The latest report of the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that in August, just as it was in July, the personal savings rate in this country dipped below zero. That's worse than simply not saving. It means that, on average, we're spending more than we are earning. Now, I should note that some economists and other experts take issue with the way this number is calculated. It doesn't take into account the growth in home equity or the amount plowed into retirement accounts like IRAs. A more holistic picture might in fact be a brighter one.

But that doesn't mean that the negative savings rate should be ignored. It still points to a significant problem: without cash — whether you put it in the bank or stuff it in the mattress (and I know some of you still do this) — you don't have a liquid emergency cushion. You don't have a stash you can access in a pinch, without refinancing or selling stocks, to bail you out of a jam. And that can make financial life difficult. Why? Because having an emergency cushion enables you to keep saving, to keep funding that IRA and making those mortgage payments. It prevents you from sinking into debt. Think of it this way: You're heading north on the freeway and your car breaks down. AAA tows you to the nearest repair shop, where you're told the fix will be $800. But you don't have the money, so you put it on a credit card. Then, for the next six or eight months, you pay off the credit card instead of saving for your future. And right before you get to the point where the slate is clean, you learn the dog needs minor surgery — and the non-saving cycle begins all over again.

There's no question, we have the desire to save. Women, in particular, seem to want to sock it away. According to Grant Schneider, author of "She Means Business" and vice president of brand development at Time, Inc. (the parent company of Money magazine, where I work), women asked about their biggest problems consistently rank saving too little and spending too much in the top three. So, how do we start?A couple of big credit card companies think they have the answer. Last week, Bank of America rolled out a new debit card called Keep the Change that rounds your purchases up to the nearest dollar and puts the change in a savings account. For the first three months, it will match your contributions entirely; thereafter, it will match 5 percent. Bank of America estimates you can stash $150 to $200 a year this way. And it caps annual savings at $250. Simultaneously, American Express introduced a new credit card it's calling One. It works more like the Discover card, except that instead of giving you cash back, AmEx will put an amount equal to 1 percent of your purchases into a savings account currently paying 3.15 percent annually. The card has a $35 annual fee, but you make most of that back with a $25 deposit to your savings account the first time you use the card. If you charge $12,000 annually — $1,000 a month — you'll save $110 (that's $120 minus the cost of using the card) in year one.

I give these cards a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. The fact that AmEx, in particular, is charging an annual fee on a card that promotes savings is a little galling. But if you're the type of customer who likes to get something in return for swiping your plastic, you may want to consider them (particularly if you've banked tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles you're having trouble redeeming). Unfortunately, what you save on cards like these is never going to be enough. You need to accumulate an emergency fund equal to three to six months worth of living expenses. That's not the same as what you spend in three to six months, by the way, it's three to six months worth of necessities. And the best way — for some people the only way — to do that is by signing up for an automatic savings plan. Tell your bank you want it to pull a certain amount of money (start with $50 a pay period) out of your checking account the day after you get paid and put it in a savings or money market account. Then keep your hands off.

After six months, assuming you get paid twice a month, you'll have $600. After a year, $1,200. After two years, $2,400. If you get a tax refund or a bonus, throw that in for good measure. Then, if the car breaks down on the turnpike, you won't have to go into debt to get it up and running again.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today" show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .