Building an emergency savings fund is not at the top of most people's to-do list.

In fact, according to a recent survey by Bankrate, only 41% of American adults have enough money in savings to cover a $500 or $1,000 emergency expense.

That means roughly 60% of Americans could be financially devastated by one unexpected bill.

The first thought is that maybe people just simply aren't making enough money to be able to save -- but that's not it. Regardless of your income, while it may be difficult, there are always ways to reduce costs in order to put money away into savings.

The real problem is the psychological barrier -- Americans are prioritizing present needs and wants over future needs, which is understandable, since no one expects an emergency to come up and retirement often seems so far away that many assume there will always be more time to save later.

But this is a really bad mindset to have, for two reasons. First, time is money. The earlier you save, the more time your money has to grow. So even if you save a lot of money down the road, it still won't be worth as much as the money you save now.

Second, emergencies do happen -- and unfortunately,  many people don't realize how damaging an unexpected expense can be until it's too late.

Read more: 3 things to never pay for with a credit card

The alarming data

According to the survey, nearly half of American families faced an unexpected emergency expense over the past year.

Regardless of your situation, something is bound to go wrong at some point -- and if you aren't prepared for it, you could end up facing some serious debt, especially if you can't pay it off before the debt begins to accrue interest.

And it's not huge expenses that can cause you big problems -- small car repairs, home maintenance and other things may cost just a few hundred dollars, but if you an't get it paid off quickly, those small bills can quickly turn into big debt.

“Americans have very little saved in preparation for financial shocks, putting many families at risk,” said Clinton Key, a researcher for Pew’s financial security and mobility project. “Our analysis shows that most families will be faced with a significant and possibly destabilizing unexpected expense at some point. It’s critical for families to build emergency savings.”

Bankrate also found that almost two in three Americans, including 46% of the highest-income households, don’t have enough savings to pay for a $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room bill.

“More than four in 10 Americans either experienced a major unexpected expense over the past 12 months or had an immediate family member who did,” according to Sheyna Steiner, Bankrate.com’s senior investing analyst. “This proves that an emergency savings cushion is more than just a personal finance cliché, yet most Americans are ill-prepared for life’s inevitable curveballs.”

Many people don't realize how detrimental the cost of an emergency can be to their finances until it's too late -- and Pew's research shows just how unprepared many American families really are.

Americans' lack of savings

Here's what Pew's research revealed about how Americans would handle the expense of an unexpected emergency:

  • 49% said they would use a credit card to pay for it

  • 36% would borrow money from another person

  • The typical household doesn't have enough liquid money to cover one month's income

  • The typical household's total financial assets only add up to about six-months worth of income 

  • 80% said they have less savings than they think they should have

  • 41% said they don't have enough money saved to cover a $2,000 bill -- which could come in the form of an unexpected car bill, home repair, medical emergency and more.

The #1 way to start saving more money

Pay yourself first! Regardless of how much money you make, if you don't make saving part of your monthly budget, you will very likely reach the end of the month and realize you've spent what you planned to save.

So do it before anything else. Figure out what you can afford to save each month (which may require reallocating the budget and/or reducing costs), and then have that money sent automatically into savings so you don't give yourself the chance to spend it.

Bottom line: your financial well-being should be your #1 priority -- paying yourself first forces you to make that happen.

How to keep your savings on track

Don't rely on credit cards

You should never use a credit card to cover the cost of an emergency. Credit cards often come with pretty high interest rates -- so if you swipe a credit card to pay for an emergency, you will just end up facing a bigger bill down the road. And the bigger the bill, the longer it will probably take you to pay it off, which will then not only cost you more in interest, but could also damage your credit score.

One example is medical debt -- you don't want to put an unexpected medical bill on a credit card. You're much better off negotiating a payment plan with the hospital or provider -- which you pay over time -- than putting the bill on a credit card.

Another reason is because medical debt is now factored into your credit score differently than consumer debt, which is anything you put on a credit card. So an unpaid medical bill will no longer impact your credit score as severely as it would have in the past. And while ideally you don't want any type of debt in your life, having a medical or hospital bill -- instead of a credit card bill -- is better for your long-term financial status.

Read more: 9 ways to find free money

Building emergency savings

The best way to save for unexpected financial shocks is to have two separate emergency funds: a rainy day fund and an emergency fund.

  • A rainy day fund is money you might dip into every once in a while to cover an unexpected expense, like a medical bill.
     
  • An emergency fund is a bigger, longer-term savings fund. This money should be able to cover at least three to six months worth of living expenses in case you can't work for a period of time, for whatever reason.

If you're starting from scratch, these goals may seem impossible -- but they aren't. The best way to approach saving is to start with baby steps and then build up from there. Also, one important thing to remember about emergency savings is that the money should be easily accessible if you ever need it -- like in a savings account. To help you get started on your savings, here are some tips, tricks and strategies you can put in place immediately.

4 ways to kickstart your savings

1. Reduce your expenses: There are tons of little ways to reduce your monthly expenses and still maintain your same lifestyle. From cable bills to everyday spending habits, here are some tips and tricks to immediately reduce your monthly expenses:

2. Increase your income: There are plenty of ways for pretty much anyone to earn extra cash. Bringing in some extra money each month can be a great way to fund your emergency savings without having to cut out other areas of your budget. Here are 11 ways to earn an extra $1,000 or more.

3. Continue paying off debt: Don't ignore the debt you already have -- that will just end up costing you more and probably damage your credit score. Start with the credit card that has the highest interest rate and put as much money toward that debt as you can each month, while still setting some aside for your rainy day fund. Then once that card is paid off, move to the card with the next highest interest rate. For more guidance, see Clark's guide to paying off credit card debt.

4. Keep it separate and make it automatic: Once you cut back on your spending and start to have some spare cash, it's important to keep it in a safe place so you won't spend it -- because no matter how disciplined you are, if it's there, it's tempting. So if you don't already have a savings account, open one. Then budget out how much extra money you will have each month and set up an automatic direct deposit from your paycheck for that amount. That way the money is put into savings before you have a chance to spend it.

Read more: Types of savings accounts: 12 options to save money

Saving 101: How to get started & keep your savings on track