It's a grueling time for many millions of Americans.

Unemployment is near record highs ; schools, stores, and restaurants have closed or moved online; large events and gatherings have been postponed or canceled; and the cause of it all a deadly disease infecting thousands of people every day is still a threat. We don't know when it's going to end or what "normal" will look like on the other side.

But if Americans' savings accounts are any indication, they're shoring up cash like never before to protect themselves from the ongoing financial pain.

Perhaps we've learned from past crises, or maybe this one presents a brand new set of challenges and unforeseen risk. Either way, it's a reminder that one of the fundamentals of money management setting aside a portion of your income for a rainy day; or in this case, a torrential downpour is more important than ever .

People are keeping cash close to the chest

The balance of savings accounts in the United States has gone up over time, in general. But as the coronavirus hit our shores, there was an unmistakable spike in liquid cash.

Americans on the whole have plowed money into savings accountsat commercial banks and credit unions over the last two months, even as personal incomes decreased by 2% in March, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis charted in the graphic below.

total deposit 5 years
total deposit 5 years
Ruobing Su/Business Insider

Between the week ending March 2 and the week ending April 27, total dollars held in savings deposit accounts including high-yield savings and money-market accounts jumped from about $9.98 trillion to $10.91 trillion. On a monthly basis, the amount of money sitting in savings accounts increased by about 2.7% from February to March, and then by about 4.4% from March to April. During the same period in 2019, savings increased by less than 1% month-over-month.

The Federal Reserve data doesn't go far enough to show whether that's people who are already financially secure beefing up their savings accounts or average Americans putting spare cash away knowing tough times are ahead.

But separate data from a Bankrate survey suggests positive savings behavior has increased markedly across all income levels. While people are dipping into their emergency funds to cover immediate expenses as is expected during a period of mass financial turbulence 20% of Americans earning more than $30,000 but less than $50,000 and 21% earning between $50,000 and $80,000 said they increased their emergency savings in the last two months. Even 13% of earners bringing in less than $30,000 a year reported a bump in their savings.

What's driving people to save more right now?

Research shows that Americans are notoriously bad at saving money . But there's no modern blueprint for how to handle your finances during a pandemic.

The influx of cash to personal savings accounts might have been driven, at least in part, by outside sources. The US government has so far sent more than $200 billion to around 130 million Americans in the form of economic impact payments, better known as stimulus checks . Most of the recipients planned to put the cash towards immediate expenses, like food and rent, but just over one-fifth said they'd save it , according to a SmartAsset survey .

The federal government is also paying people out of a job or on furlough an additional $600 a week on top of their state unemployment benefits through the end of June. For around half of US workers , this means collecting unemployment brings in more cash than the average full-time job.

Dan Ariely , a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, says the spike in savings over the last few months can be explained, in part, by greater access to cash and higher levels of stress. For one, he says, people who still have a source of income are finding new ways to save money.

"Usually, you'd walk around the street and buy coffee or a donut. Now, we can't do that as much so there is more cash left over for people that are still receiving salaries. So that is good news," Ariely, who is also the chief behavioral economist at Qapital , told Business Insider. Combined with the stress of our current economic state, he says there's a heightened incentive to save.

"This is both a time of fear and lucrative opportunity where money is concerned," says Erika Rasure , an assistant professor in the online MBA in financial services program at Maryville University andsenior consultant and president at St. Louis Financial Therapy.

"It's natural to want to hang on to your money if you do not have a lot of it, are uncertain in your employment, or are generally distrustful of what the future might hold," she told Business Insider.

"In other cases, this is an excellent time to set financial goals and seek opportunities for investment that exist specifically in a market like this," Rasure says. "In both situations, however, there is a keen awareness of how much money you have, how much money you need, and what you can or cannot do with the money you have."

For Belu Wonji, a 35-year-old nonprofit worker in Oakland, California, the current crisis is a stark reminder to plan for the future, she told Business Insider.

Wonji's parents emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1980s and worked multiple jobs to provide for their family, she says. To that end, they didn't have the tools or resources to save for retirement. She and her brother have opened a high-yield savings account to pool together money for them.

"Today our parents are older and as with most immigrant families many responsibilities have transitioned over to the children in sort of an unspoken way," Wonji says. "Looking at the options and the sense of duty to care for them, we thought we could help fill a financial gap that hopefully eases the money burden of retirement."

Will the savings trend continue?

To be sure, an emergency fund or cash reserve is good to have all the time, not just when you sense financial disaster on the horizon or as you're moving through the crisis itself. Financial emergencies can, and often do, crop up unexpectedly, whether it's a car repair or doctor's visit that isn't covered by insurance.

"There is a question of whether this will lead towards behavioral changes going forward," Ariely says. "It depends on how cash is being moved. If people are doing one-time transfers then it's probably not going to become a habit. If people are doing automatic deductions, it will be more likely to sustain.

"The other question is after coronavirus, how quickly will we go back to our old habits? How sustained will the new habits be? Partly, it's how people will set themselves up. The moment COVID-19 is over, will people go and splurge? Most likely savings won't last in this case. But, if we are cautious and slow, and remember what happened we will be prepared for the future in a better way," Ariely says.

The conventional wisdom is to have three to six months of living expenses at the ready in an accessible deposit account. Some people feel comfortable with more, some feel fine with less. The point is to have a lifeline you can tap before taking on high-interest debt to get by. Generally the best place to store this money is in a high-interest account that's easy to access online. Most savings accounts have a federally mandated limit of six withdrawals per month, but the Federal Reserve has waived the limit for the time being.

During an Instagram Live filmed on March 18, financial expert and bestselling author Ramit Sethi recommends aiming for a year's worth of expenses in cash. Because as you pull from your emergency fund, it will need replenishing.

"Now is the time to plan for the worst. So many people are writing me and saying, 'I have this emergency fund but I don't want to use it,'" Sethi says. "I'm like: What is an emergency fund for? This is an emergency. Guys, wake up. Panic is bad, but overreaction is good. It's time to think about your emergency fund because we have an emergency situation."

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