PhotoThe economic picture has been mixed lately. Employment appears to be growing, and while the economy is far from robust, it does appear to be expanding. Home sales are up, and so are car sales.

But despite this apparent growth, there is yet another survey suggesting that many consumers are struggling to make ends meet.

Fifth Third Bank commissioned a study to find out how consumers are doing when it comes to saving money for big things, like a car, a down payment on a home, or for education.

It found many Americans aren't saving anything, for one very big reason; after paying the bills, there is no money left to save. In fact, 47% of the consumers in the survey said they frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck.

This is disturbing on several levels. First, it shows Americans aren't setting aside money for the big expenses in life, and therefore may not be able to make those purchases.

Second, when an unexpected expense pops up – and they always do – these consumers won't have savings to dip into, resulting in a growing credit card balance or, heaven forbid, a visit to a payday lender.

Six months living expenses

Financial planners urge all consumers to have money to cover at least six months of living expenses at all time, and more than half in the survey had heard that advice.

Yet two-thirds of consumers said they don't have that much in savings and 30% said they have no savings at all.

There appears to be a wide gap between knowing and doing. Forty-six percent said Americans should start saving for retirement in their 20s. However, more than half don't contribute to a retirement plan.

Of those who said they had a retirement plan, half didn't know how much was in it.

Here's another disconnect – 60% of Baby Boomers who are approaching retirement age described themselves as “financially savvy.” But two-thirds of the Boomers in the survey are still carrying credit card debt, even though they are just a few years from retirement.

Start small

Jada Grandy, a senior vice president at Fifth Third, says she understands how daunting it can seem to start saving for financial goals when it seems to take every dime just to get through the month. But she says starting small, like putting away just $40 a month, can be a productive start.

“As that reserve grows, focus on building an emergency fund with three to six months of living expenses,” Grandy said. “Saving a little today can mean a lot is available tomorrow."

According to America Saves, a non-profit venture promoting the accumulation of savings, there are ways to put money away, even on a tight budget. The group suggests keeping a complete record of daily expenses in order to make you aware of where you are spending money and where you might be able to cut back.

If you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which you can claim on your federal income tax return, that could provide a family with an annual lump sum of between $1,000 and $2,000 – a nice start to a savings funds.

You can find out more about the Earned Income Tax Credit here.

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