Affluent Americans are so concerned about not having enough money on hand for emergency expenses that they are putting their retirement savings at risk by keeping money in low-yielding products, such as savings accounts, CDs and money market funds.

According to a new poll titled Money on the Sidelines, which was released on Wednesday by MetLife, 58% of investors with $200,000 or more in investable assets cited emergency expenditures as the main reason they kept a portion of their retirement savings in liquid accounts. Of those surveyed, 50% had at least one unexpected expense of $2,000 or more in the past year, and 29% had between two and five major emergency expenditures.

Other reasons given for keeping money in liquid funds: 43% didn’t want to tie up funds up in a long-term investment and 31% were concerned about a volatile stock market.

The poll, conducted online for MetLife in September 2010 by Harris Interactive, surveyed 1,858 Americans age 45 and older, including 500 individuals with $200,000 or more in investable assets.

“One thing our study shows is that people are living very close to the line,” said Julia Lennox, vice president, Retirement Products at MetLife in a phone interview on Wednesday. “What they earn is pretty much what they spend. To try to pull money away to cover unexpected expenses or to save is more difficult because their lifestyle is costing them all the money they have available to spend.”

Even with those surveyed, who had over $200,000 in investable assets, only 50% said they could save 10% more than they already do. “There’s not a lot of room to maneuver,” she added.

Those with unexpected expenses pay for those using credit cards, revolving debt, or by borrowing from retirement accounts. While the intent to save more is there the flexibility to save more is not, Lennox explained.

While 65% of more-affluent Americans are using mutual funds as a retirement savings vehicle, 52% are using bank savings accounts, 51% are using money market accounts, 38% are using CDs, 21% are using Treasury/savings bonds, 20% are using municipal bonds and 19% are using fixed annuities.

Fifty percent of those surveyed say they would be comfortable giving up access to their retirement savings in order to receive the most income possible, while the other half say it’s more important to have a large portion of their retirement savings available to them at all times, even if it means less income in the long run.

The question for advisors is how to make sure clients have their liquidity needs taken care of, while also taking care of retirement needs. “If advisors are going to get people’s money off the sidelines they have to satisfy both protection from downside markets and liquidity needs,” Lennox said. “If clients have unexpected expenses they shouldn’t have to derail their retirement plans to deal with them.”

The answer may be in products like annuities, said Robert E. Sollmann, Jr., executive vice president, Retirement Products at MetLife. “Some of these vehicles with optional living benefit riders let people invest in potentially higher-yielding assets, take immediate withdrawals to help meet unexpected expenses, generate predictable lifelong income, and help protect against market declines,” said Sollmann. “It’s a solution that can help give investors the confidence to put their retirement savings back to work and the flexibility to meet their changing needs.”