How to build savings from zero

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You've seen the numbers. They aren't pretty.

A recent Bankrate.com survey of 1,000 adults suggests that 66 million American adults have zero dollars saved for an emergency. That dovetails nicely with a report that came out earlier this year from the Federal Reserve, which looked at the economic well-being of American households. And things are not going so well. About one-third of 5,695 respondents to a 2015 survey revealed they would have trouble dealing with a $400 emergency.

Sound familiar? Start building your savings with some of these methods.

Start small. That's advice from Mackey McNeill, founder and president of Mackey Advisors, a wealth management firm in Bellevue, Kentucky.

"If you have never saved anything in your life, save $5 a week or $10 a week," McNeill says, adding: "Pick a number that, regardless of disaster, you can achieve."

After you do that, McNeill advises, "Put the money in a separate account and review it once a month. After three months, consider an increase. After three more months, consider an increase again," and keep repeating.

"The reason people fail at saving is they start too high. ... So they set themselves up for failure," she says. "Start small. You will be so excited that you met your goal, you will automatically want to do more and achieve more. When you start small, you set yourself up for success. Success begets success. I have never had anyone try this who did not succeed."

[See: Your Month to Month Guide to Savings.]

Reward yourself when you save money. This is important, McNeill says, advising that whatever the reward be, make it something free.

RELATED: Tips to teach your kids about saving money

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tips to teach your kids to save money

Play money-centered board games or games on apps, like Monopoly or Money Race.
It's an interactive and fun way for your kids to learn about basic financial practices without feeling like they're being lectured.

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Give them an allotted amount of cash to spend on lunch each week.
Your child will learn how to budget accordingly throughout the week, figuring out how to balance spending money on food some days vs bringing their own on other days (something that can be directly translated into the adult workplace).

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Have them write down or tell you their absolute dream toy.
Then, show them that it's possible to have that toy if they save x enough money for x amount of weeks.

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Give them an allowance.
 

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Stick to a set time and date each month for giving your child their allowance.
Practicing giving your children their allowance every other week or on certain dates of each month will help them prepare for set paydays in the working world--it will teach them to budget out and how to know when to save up in anticipation.

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Match your child's savings each month.
This will imitate a 401K and show your child ways in which saving can (literally) pay off.

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Have your kid organize their funds in to different jars to represent different accounts.
Examples could be "Saving", "Spending", "Charity", "Emergency", "College".

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Take your kids grocery shopping and explain certain choices you make with your purchases to them.
Your children will benefit from knowing what's best to purchase name brand vs. generic, why some snacks are better to buy in bulk, etc.

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For instance: If you save $10 a week, then every time you hit $40 saved, rent a movie at the library or take a walk in the park, she explains.

Whatever you do, "make it something that really nurtures you," she says. "It doesn't matter what it is. A hot bath will work. But when you give yourself the reward, you are reinforcing the behavior you want."

Trim back your expenses. One thing that probably keeps most people from saving more is that there may not be enough money to go around. That's definitely the case if there are expenses that could be easily cut, or debt that's weighing you down.

[See: 10 Easy Ways to Pay Off Debt.]

"When talking with clients that are beginning to put together a plan to save money, or begin their accumulation phase, the first thing I advise them to do is pay off any high-interest debt like credit cards," says Dan Milan, managing partner of Cornerstone Financial Services LLC, a wealth management firm in Birmingham, Michigan.

"Paying off high-interest debt is the most important first step in beginning any accumulation phase," he says. "I consider this part of a savings plan because everything you pay off, you are eventually saving money on high interest."

Make it easy. Assuming you have a bank – a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation study suggests that 9 million Americans don't – the easiest way to save money is to set up a savings account and then direct a specific amount to go regularly from your checking account to your savings account, says Michael Eisenberg, a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist with Innovative Wealth Advisors in Encino, California.

"Every time your paycheck hits your checking account, you should instruct your bank to move a set sum directly into your savings account," he says. "This makes it easy and seamless."

Eventually, he says, you won't even miss the money because it's automatically disappearing, and you'll get used to working with the money going into your checking account.

Susan Howe, a certified public accountant in Philadelphia, echoes that advice. "Even a modest amount will add up quickly if you set it for a weekly transfer. Just be sure there are no fees," she says.

[See: How to Live on $13,000 a Year.]

Try opening a 401(k) or an IRA. That's what Leonard Wright, a wealth management advisor in San Diego, suggests. In particular, Wright recommends opening up a Roth 401(k) or a Roth IRA.

"This money grows tax-free for life, is not subject to required minimum distributions when you retire and best of all, is tax-free when you need it – and can help with education expenses for your children," he says.

The only downside? Some 401(k)s and IRAs require you to have some money to start the account, like a minimum deposit of $1,000, and if you have saved zero dollars, that may be a tough hurdle. But not every 401(k) and IRA has a minimum deposit – or some will waive that if you commit to paying a certain amount of money a month – so look around.

You also may want to check out myRA, a retirement savings account from the United States Department of the Treasury. It was designed for people who have had trouble saving money and for people who don't work for an employer that offers a vehicle for saving for retirement. It has no fees, and you can open a myRA for as little as $25.

But McNeill notes that wherever you put your money, whether in a 401(k) or other savings account, "in the beginning, it's irrelevant," – as long as you're saving money somewhere. "What you are trying to do is create a new habit."

RELATED: 10 things we've all said while filing our taxes

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10 things we've all said while filing our taxes
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10 things we've all said while filing our taxes

"It's only January, I have plenty of time!"
You're relaxed, you're casual, what even are taxes anyway? You don't care! It's so far away that filing taxes isn't even remotely on your radar, to be honest.

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"The imminent act of filing is upon me and I literally have nothing ready..."
Tax season is now approaching and that creeping anxiety about getting everything done on time is starting to set in. It's essentially biting at your heels and you know you have to get moving.

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No words. Just emotional paralysis.
You're screwed. You need to start doing your paperwork but you physically do not know where to even begin. It's time. It's happening.

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"I HAVE A MILLION THINGS I NEED TO DO, WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PAPERS AND QUESTIONS, SOMEBODY HELP ME!"
That anxiety you felt creeping in earlier? Now it's full-fledged onset. This stage is often accompanied by screaming out loud, pulling hair, crying, etc.

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"Wait, did I get all of my papers in? Did I check that one box correctly? Does it look like I'm trying to evade some of these taxes? What if I go to jail? Can I go to jail for that? WHO WILL FEED MY DOG WHEN I AM IN JAIL?!"

It's like handing in an exam in school and wishing you could grab it back and double check your answers one more time.

Who was that celebrity you heard about that went to jail for tax evasion? Because now you're convinced that's totally going to be you.

Spoiler alert: as long as you did everything to the best of your knowledge and ability, you probably won't go to jail. And even if you do, you'll find someone to walk your dog.

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"I got this, I'm almost done, a few more papers and I'm in the clear. I just have to pound through the rest of it. Go me!"

"Go you" is right! Now you're on cruise control and you're on track to get everything done well and on time. You're unstoppable in the delight of the world that is tax filing.

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"Thank god that's over with, now I can relax! What to do with all this stress-free free time!"
Finally, relief. Your papers are filed and sent out into the universe. It's off your back at last. Now on to more important things, like Netflix.

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"When is my return coming? Is this going to be my life for the rest of my life? Yep, it is. So about that return..."
Now, you wait. You want that money. And the inevitable truth that your life will now be a neverending cycle of filing taxes and waiting for your return.

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"SCORE my return was so much better than I expected! I'm buying a new dress. Or five. Probably five, why not?"
You're on a total life-high now. The possibilities of what you can spend your return on seem endless and even if you don't, having a nice bonus hunk of cash in your pocket feels pretty good. It made all of that stress completely worth it.

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"Honestly filing wasn't even that bad this year. And now I don't have to think about it anymore. Well at least not for another year. But no use in worrying about that now!"
Alas, acceptance. You know you'll fall victim to the vicious cycle again when next year rolls around. But truthfully, you wouldn't have it any other way. Okay, you obviously would. But you'll never change your procrastinating ways!

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