The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App

Most Americans can't handle a $500 surprise bill

While the recession may be long over, many Americans are still living one bill away from financial disaster.

Despite the stronger economy, a lack of emergency savings that would help them weather an unexpected expense such as a health crisis or car breakdown remains a serious handicap. In fact, about 63 percent of Americans say they're unable to handle a $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room bill, according to a new survey from Bankrate.com.

Its findings shed light on a disconnect between rosier economic figures, such as an unemployment rate that's declined steadily since 2010, and what continues to be the worrying financial reality for many Americans. Real median household income has slumped since 1999, when it reached a high of $57,843, and now hovers at about $54,000.

But given the increasing costs of everything from food to health care, that has left many families struggling to put money aside for rainy days.

Even though most people would think such financial shocks are rare, the fact is they're increasingly common, partly because American workers are more likely than ever to see big swings in income due to job losses or cuts in hours.

About six out of 10 American households experienced a financial shock during the last year, with major car repairs and lost income ranking among the most common, The Pew Charitable Trusts found in a study published last year.

"These things do happen, and if you don't have the financial resources to handle it, it can be catastrophic if you are living on the edge," said Bankrate.com senior investing analyst Sheyna Steiner.

That happened last year to Rashaad King, 26, a screenwriter who moved to Los Angeles from his home state of Georgia in August with the goal of breaking into the TV industry. While he arrived on the West Coast with two months of savings and found a job as a telemarketer, circumstances soon went south. He quit the job after he says he became concerned about the ethics of the telemarketing job, which he said tried to sell people on debt-reduction schemes. He found a second job, but the company sold itself soon after he started and laid off workers -- including King.

On top of that, he lost his place to stay after his friend's landlord complained he wasn't on the lease and said either King or his friend had to move. While he found a new place to live, it required a $600 deposit, which King at that point didn't have.

"It's been difficult mentally, because you have an idea of what life should be like and where you should be in your life," noted King. He said that he feels life has improved for some people since the recession, but others "get thrown into difficult or unforeseen circumstances."

There's a happy ending for King, who turned to GoFundMe to ask friends and family to help him raise the $600 for the apartment deposit. He ended up raising $794, and he said that he planned to secure the new apartment on Wednesday, after spending several days sleeping at 24-hour restaurants and cafes.

While this is only the second year that Bankrate ran this specific survey, its prior studies about Americans' emergency savings rates have uncovered similar results. The bottom line: They haven't seen much improvement in their ability to handle unexpected financial shocks during the past few years.

But Steiner noted that Bankrate's survey also found that about one out of five consumers making less than $30,000 said they had enough emergency savings set aside to handle an unexpected bill.

This suggests that financial cushions aren't out of reach for lower-income households, although it may require more discipline than for Americans earning at least $75,000, given that about half of the latter said they have enough set aside to cope with a $500 or $1,000 expense.

It can be daunting to build an emergency savings fund of between three to six months of income while also juggling bills and paying down debt. That's why Steiner recommends aiming to set aside a smaller amount, such as $1,000, as a first step toward handling unexpected bills.

Given that so many are unprepared for a car breakdown or big medical bill, how do Americans say they would cope in such a situation? About 23 percent said they would cut back on spending in other areas, while 15 percent said they would need to rely on credit cards. Another 15 percent said they would turn to friends or family for help.

As for paring spending, Americans said dining out would be the first place they would cut back, while only one-third said they would be very or somewhat likely to cut spending on alcohol. In the face of trying times, Americans may not want to imagine giving up that glass of wine or beer while contemplating a growing stack of bills.