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Save something for a rainy day ... or drown in debt

We all know we should have a cushy savings fund ready and waiting for the next emergency.

But plenty of people don't always follow through on that particular personal-finance touchstone. Even those with six-figure salaries sometimes neglect to stash some of their cash, says Andrew Housser, co-chief executive of Bills.com, a consumer education Web site.

Housser and Brad Stroh also run a sister company, Freedom Financial, a firm which for a fee negotiates lower credit-card bills on the behlf of consumers.

"A very large percentage of our clients get into debt problems because of a one-time temporary event: A temporary job loss, a temporary medical issue, a divorce, which is permanent but the problematic period is usually temporary," Housser said.

"They couldn't weather this temporary event because they didn't have a rainy day fund. They're living paycheck to paycheck. We talk to people who are making well into the six figures who are living paycheck to paycheck," he said.

Those higher earning clients "are used to living a certain lifestyle," he said.

If their income is variable — some were in the mortgage industry, he said — or they lose their job, often they keep spending money after they get into trouble.

"That's the exact opposite of what they should do. They keep spending money at the same rate they're accustomed to. They're running up a lot of debt. By the time they call us, they're in real trouble. We have clients with over $100,000 in credit card debt," Housser said.

Another problem savers make is confusing their 401(k) or other retirement savings with an emergency fund. "You have to think of them as two completely separate things," Housser said.

"Your 401(k) you're not going to touch until you're in your mid-60s. If you do touch it before then, you're going to pay taxes and penalties. A rainy day fund is something you may need to use next year or the year after that," he said.

Another difference is that once you've saved up to six months of expenses in your rainy-day fund, you can start saving for other goals, such as that vacation you've wanted. You keep building a retirement account until you retire.

Andrea Coombes is MarketWatch's assistant personal finance editor, based in San Francisco.