Save for likely emergencies like medical bills or car repairs,...

Save for likely emergencies like medical bills or car repairs, so you're not taken by surprise. Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

According to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of U.S. adults say they would have trouble coming up with $400 to cover an unexpected expense. And surveys by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 51 percent of families with at least $2,000 in savings reported trouble paying the bills after a financial shock.

Yet it is hardly a shock if an appliance wears out or a car breaks down.

Such bills may be unpredictable in their amount or their timing, but they’re still inevitable. In other words: If you have a car or a home or a body, sooner or later it’s going to cost you.

A better approach is to save for the most likely costs and have some kind of Plan B to handle the truly unexpected.

Here’s how that might work with three of the most common unexpected expenses Pew found:

  • Car repairs

U.S. households spent an average $837 on vehicle maintenance and repairs in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most spent between 1.4 percent and 1.8 percent of their incomes on these costs.

Tuck aside $500 to $1,000 to cover a typical repair, and add to that cache as you can. Once you pay off your current car, redirect the payments into your repair fund. You can use any money you don’t spend on repairs as a down payment on your next car.

As a Plan B, keep space available on a credit card or consider a personal loan if repair costs outstrip your savings. For homeowners, a home equity line of credit may be a lower-cost option.

  • Home maintenance and repairs

How much you spend depends on what breaks and how badly. The usual rule of thumb is to set aside 1 percent of your home’s purchase price each year for repairs. Some years you’ll have money left over, but eventually you’ll face a cost like a new roof that overwhelms your savings. That home equity line of credit can be a low-cost way to pick up the slack.

  • Medical bills

Medical pricing can defy sense and logic.

Ideally, people would save enough to cover their annual deductibles, but that can total thousands of dollars. The average deductible under a “silver” Obamacare plan is $3,609 this year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Save what you can, but your Plan B shouldn’t involve credit. Most medical providers offer interest-free payment plans, and many also have some kind of discount for struggling families. They may not offer unless you ask.

The unexpected wouldn’t present such a big problem if we all followed financial planners’ advice to stow at least three months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund. That’s a good goal, but the most important thing is to tuck away something — anything — every paycheck.

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