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A second stimulus check may be coming: Here's the No. 1 thing experts suggest you do while you wait

Twenty/20

If you're among the millions of Americans who are hoping to receive a second stimulus check in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, you may be waiting for a while. Currently, the HEROES Act is the only piece of legislation working its way through Congress that would grant households an additional economic impact payment. That bill passed the House on May 15 but has since stalled in the Senate.

There's no telling if it will pass any time soon, or at all. And while experts do think that more stimulus measures of some kind will eventually be enacted, there's no guarantee that additional stimulus checks or an extension of augmented unemployment benefits will be among them.

For that reason, it may be a good idea to plan ahead and if you're in a financial position to do so, create your own rainy day fund or emergency savings account.

"Whatever people need to do to reframe their thinking — to help them to save so they don't find themselves in a financial bind — whatever you can do to reach those goals, go for it," says Niv Persaud, a certified financial planner and managing director at Georgia-based Transition Planning & Guidance.

"If that means reframing your thinking around savings as a 'stimulus check,' do it," she says.

Personal finance expert Suze Orman recently made a similar point: Though she ordinarily recommends focusing on paying down debts, she suggested that during the pandemic, Americans shift focus and make their priority building their emergency fund. 

Americans have struggled with savings

The first round of stimulus checks served as a cash transfer: They were intended to help people keep the lights on and put food on the table as millions of people were losing income during the pandemic. 

Experts have long advised that everyone maintain an emergency fund for exactly this type of situation. Ideally, that fund would have between three and six months' worth of expenses in it, or more, and be relatively easy to access, like in a savings account.

The reality is, most people struggle to save. Only 41% of Americans could afford to cover a $1,000 emergency as of January, according to data from Bankrate.

"The lack of progress on the percentage of Americans that could pay an unplanned expense of a thousand dollars out of savings is alarming," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate told Grow following the data's release earlier this year. "Successful saving is all about the habit. If you don't have the habit, you're setting up a big roadblock for yourself," he said.

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How to think about saving differently

People may struggle with saving in part because it feels like an obligation, and because it's not that often anyone is forced to recognize the immediate need for an emergency fund, says certified financial planner Patrick Donnelly, a vice president and senior financial advisor at The Colony Group.

Still, he says, an emergency fund is "one of the very early building blocks of an overall financial plan." And even though "you know in your heart you need an emergency fund," it can be hard to actually transfer the money to savings when you could instead spend it on a night out or a new gadget. "It's easy to get hung up," he says.

Luckily, saving up some sort of financial cushion is likely easier than most people realize. If you wanted to save up a $1,000 emergency fund over the course of a year, for example, you'd only need to sock away $38 per paycheck.

Reframing your goal — by thinking of it as a stimulus check you're able to give yourself when you need it, for example, without having to wait on the government — could help motivate you, Persaud says.

For those who don't have emergency savings, or having trouble getting into a savings habit, Donnelly has a few tips to get started.

1. Build it into your budget and pick a savings vehicle

First, if you don't have a budget, create one. There are lots of relatively simple and painless ways to go about it, and having one makes it much easier to understand what your priorities are and where your money needs to go.

Then make sure that "emergency savings" is a line item in your budget and that you're contributing money to it each paycheck — the same way you would with a retirement account, for example.

Be aware that you have options. While a savings account at a traditional bank will work fine, it's likely to earn you very little interest, especially in the current economic environment. Shop around to make sure you're getting the best available rate. You can also consider other types of accounts, like CDs or money market accounts

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2. Set up automatic transfers

Perhaps the most important thing to do, Donnelly says, is to make your contributions automatic. It removes the thought and emotion from the decision, and it means the money will be in your savings fund before you ever see it — making it harder to spend it.

"Transferring the money into the account can be tough," he says. Automating the process, though, makes the process fluid, easy, and routine.

3. Make sure the money's out of reach

Donnelly's final suggestion is to build your emergency fund at a different bank or credit union than where you do your day-to-day banking. For example, have your checking account at one bank and your savings account at another. This way, he says, you'll have to go through another step to get money out of your savings, if and when you're tempted to. 

"The fact that [your money is] in another institution — taking an extra step to take the cash out helps you hold it longer," he says.

When you need cash, the last thing you want to do is to dip into your long-term investments, like your retirement accounts, since you might be slapped with penalties, taxes, and fees. Instead, experts recommend, focus on building your emergency fund, so that you'll have some money available when you need it.

As financial advisor Amy Shepard of Arizona's Sensible Money recently told Grow, "your emergency fund is for times like this."

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