This post is from new GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

Once upon a time it was enough to have a three-month emergency fund; now I hear we should aim for enough to cover a year’s worth of food, shelter, and other basics. A swell idea in theory, but this could actually discourage saving. Many people feel they could never set aside that much money, so why bother trying. Why? Because even a moderate emergency fund helps keep you solvent, that’s why.

Suppose you get a nail in your tire and your wallet holds nothing except some lonely moths. Without a cash cushion, you’ll have to put that new radial on a credit card or, god forbid, take out a payday loan.

The good news: You can start by shooting for the minimum $500 in the bank recommended by MSN columnist Liz Pulliam Weston. The better news: It’s possible to nickel-and-dime your way to that goal.

Microsaving, maximum results
Lynn, a woman whose just-out-of-grad-school salary was very low, figured the most she could bank would be $10 a month. She actually asked herself, “What’s the point?” But she started with a single sawbuck per month. She added a little birthday money. And then she got motivated, boosting her balance with techniques such as:

  • Saving spare change and dollar bills
  • Selling scrapbook pages on eBay
  • Recycling cans and bottles
  • Holding garage sales
  • Banking the proceeds from coupons and rebates
  • Adjusting her savings rate when she got pay raises

A decade later, Lynn has built up a six-month fund along with separate (and healthy) accounts for vacations, retirement, and a down payment on a someday home. She could just have easily remained stuck in a “what’s the point?” mentality.

Nancy banks the money she saves using grocery coupons. (Remember: It’s not savings unless you save it.) And one woman I know picks up dropped coins and banks these “street funds” along with manufacturers’ rebates, tax refunds, and money from her side hustles.

Look for your own microsavings tactics. Suppose you brought soda from home instead of hitting the pop machine every day at 2 p.m.? Or spent one or two Saturdays a month at the library catching up on magazines vs. subscribing to them? (And while you’re there, borrowing DVDs instead of using Netflix or Redbox?)

What if you packed your lunch even once or twice a week? Sent free e-cards instead of traditional greeting cards? Put together a dinner from what’s on hand instead of picking up a rotisserie chicken at the market? Reconsidered cable TV?

Let’s assume this let you set aside just $2 to $10 a week. In a year, that would be $104 to $520 that would otherwise have gone to soft drinks, periodicals, or the dollar menu.

Set it and forget it?
A great way to build your emergency fund is to automate it. Do this now, even if it’s only $5 a month to start. You’ll learn to live on what’s left. One woman I interviewed began by banking an hour’s gross salary each payday; now she’s up to four hours.

Some banks offer cash incentives to open a checking account; let that be your EF seed money. Make the account “one-way,” i.e., no debit card. You might even decide to choose an online bank, especially since interest rates are often higher. Remember: The money shouldn’t be too easy to access.

Give this account a name. One reader calls it her “Oh, shit!” fund, since its purpose is to cover things that go wrong. Call it “My EF,” call it “The Contingency Fund” — call it “Billy the Bank” if that’s what it takes to remind you that this is not a general fund, to be dipped into any time you want a pizza.

A few more suggestions to strengthen your savings:

  • Answer online surveys and bank the payments.
  • Change a habit, even temporarily. Plan a “pantry challenge” or institute Meatless Monday. Give up fast food, salty snacks or soda for a week, or a month. (Or forever.) Figure out what you would have spent. Bank it.
  • Let people know you’re available to pet-sit, clean attics, design web pages, whatever. I still babysit occasionally, earning $40 to $50 a night (and at least half of that night is me sitting and reading after the kids are asleep).
  • Just before payday, move whatever’s left in checking into the fund.
  • “Round up” each transaction, e.g., record a $6.39 debit-card purchase as $7. Add up the “extra” each month and shuttle it off to the emergency fund. Some banks will do this for you and possibly provide matching funds.
  • Sell items on Craigslist or eBay.
  • Ask friends (in-person or online) to join you in a savings support group. Or propose an “EF challenge” with your most competitive pal.

Yes, saving is hard. Here’s what’s harder: Paying off that new tire while interest is compounding. Just for fun I used this credit-card payoff calculator at Index Credit Cards. Assuming you bought a $120 tire at 18% interest and could afford only $10 payments, it would take 14 months to pay it off in full.

This won’t be the only emergency you’ll ever face — and you could have paid cash if only you’d skipped some of those magazines and cheeseburgers.