Here are some ideas for scraping up the initial $500:

  • Use your tax refund. The typical refund check is more than $2,000, so most people will have enough to fund their cushion in one fell swoop. If you're not getting a refund or it's already spent, though, you still have plenty of options.
  • Try a "buy nothing" month. Several dozen MSN Money commenters have tried this experiment, and many are surprised at the amounts of cash they're saving by buying only necessities for a single month. If you bring your lunch and snacks to work, don't eat out and avoid shopping for 30 days, you may find you can make a good deal of progress toward your $500 goal.
  • Sell stuff. Try yard sales, consignment stores and online auction sites such as eBay or classified sites like Craigslist. Sell your books on Half.com or Amazon.com. Make sure the cash you raise is put into savings immediately, or it will get spent.
  • Save your change. Several readers tell of saving hundreds of dollars over the course of a year, even making a game of it with their children.
  • Review your bills. If you haven't already, go through your regular bills and see what you can trim. Dropping premium TV channels or doing without pay TV entirely for a while could produce significant savings. Phone bills are often rife with extras that can be cut, including call waiting or pricey voice-mail systems. If you have high-speed Internet access, consider switching to an Internet calling service such as Vonage or Skype to save even more. Once you've trimmed, channel the extra savings into your bank account. If you save $10 on your phone bill, for example, put that much into savings each month.
  • Make your savings automatic. Setting up a regular electronic transfer from your checking to your savings account is much better than making the transfers manually. If you have to make the decision to save every month, you'll probably decide to do something else with the money. If the decision is made for you, it's more likely to stick.

But is it an emergency?

If you've been living paycheck to paycheck for a while, you may be unclear about what constitutes a true emergency. Essentially, it's an event that puts your livelihood or your family's safety at risk. The television dying, for example, is not an emergency. The furnace dying is.

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A car repair may or may not be an emergency, depending on whether you have alternate transportation. If you can't get to work any other way, then getting the car fixed justifies raiding your emergency fund. If you can take the bus for a while, it doesn't.

Regular, predictable expenses are not emergencies. Neither are gift-giving occasions such as weddings, holidays and birthdays.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.