An emergency fund is one of the most important pieces to get in place when you're figuring out your financial puzzle.
For many people, our economic realities make putting money aside to sit-and-wait for a just-in-case scenario can feel maddening -- or seem plain mad. Yet emergency funds are arguably the most important element of a financial safety net. Perhaps second only to “spend less money than you make,” the financial advice to “build an emergency fund” is among the best you can follow.
What exactly is an emergency fund? It is cash set aside to be used only in an unexpected one-time situation and only to prevent imminent danger to one’s physical health. In other words, an emergency fund is money you keep to bail yourself out when a true emergency arises.
Sadly, emergencies will happen; they’re a common part of life. Knowing what is and isn’t an emergency will give you the guidelines you need to manage your just-in-case cash fund. An emergency is a one-time unexpected situation that threatens your access to basic food, shelter, clothing, and/or medical care. Specific threats to each category include the following:
Food – not having enough basic food to survive, having no money for food due to an unexpected situation, already using the food bank and still not making it.
Shelter – receiving an eviction notice, having essential utilities cut off (water, electricity, heat in cold months).
Clothing – lack of basic appropriate clothing to keep you safe and warm to due an unexpected situation.
Medical care – injury or illness that requires medical attention
What do each of these situations have in common? They threaten your very existence.
I want to dwell on medical care for one moment because your well being – financial and otherwise – is tied to your access to health care. You need health insurance; consider this absolutely non-negotiable. Making a choice not to pursue medical care is a decision that threatens your physical health in the short- and long-terms. Becoming sick is never expected, but it is a reality each of us faces even if we seem otherwise healthy. Even with insurance, co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses often lead people to not access these essential services. Having money on hand to cover those costs is crucial. When you have insurance, make sure you are familiar with its terms, copays, and out-of-pocket maximums. Once you know what you may have to pay in the worst-case scenario, add the amount to your emergency fund target goal.
How much money do you need in an emergency fund, and how do you put any money away on your current salary?
Conventional financial advice suggests individuals save enough to cover three to six months of expenses, plus your worst-case out-of-pocket medical costs. We would love to say there’s an easy way for the a person paid minimum wage to reach this goal in a timely manner, but the reality is that saving that much cash for a minimum wage worker takes a very long time. So instead of looking at a large and daunting number, start small. Aim to create a $500 cash emergency fund.
Why $500? This amount will cover small, unexpected events like an emergency doctor visit, a basic car repair, a trip to the emergency vet with a pet, or being short on rent or food. It’s a number within reach of nearly everyone’s budget with some planning, and it’s a good start. If you put $20 away a month, you can have $500 in about two years. Increase your monthly savings to $42 to complete this goal within one year.
When you decide to create your emergency fund, it helps to keep the money separate from your usual living expenses. Keep it in a separate account, ideally a high-interest rate savings account often offered by credit unions and online banks, or set it aside as cash in an envelope or somewhere you will not be tempted to use it.
To build up your fund, consider utilizing these suggestions:
When you’re saving, keep in mind that it’s okay to let this money sit as cash or in a savings account. It may be tempting at some point to invest it to grow your money, but the point of an emergency fund is for it to be there right away when you need it. It’s your safety net. Leave it alone. You don't need it to do anything fancier than sit and wait for you to need it.
Moreover, a credit card is not an emergency fund. If you can’t afford to pay for an emergency need the moment it’s before you, how are you going to afford it later with compound interest added on? A $300 emergency on a credit card may end up taking 18 months to pay off and cost $42 extra in interest. Using a credit card to cover emergencies puts individuals in a bad situation where, on top of the stress of the emergency itself, they’re now in debt. Any further complications or a second emergency situation could damage their financial stability for years.
Consider buying term disability insurance. Employers are required to carry workers compensation insurance, which covers you in case you are injured on the job. Many large companies also give, or offer, disability insurance, which covers you in case you are sick or are injured from something other than a workplace injury. Many bookstores are too small or can’t afford to give employees disability insurance, so purchase a term disability policy in case your health suffers and you are unable to work.
Wherever you decide to begin, getting an emergency fund together is one of the best forms of protection you can give yourself. You’re the only one who’s going to look after you, so be the guardian you would want on your side and be kind to yourself. Make a plan, stick to it, and keep going.
You can do this!
If you have any questions, feel free to email Justus Joseph at Squirrel and Nest.
Squirrel and Nest offers one-on-one and small group financial counseling services that aim to give individuals the knowledge and independence they need to get their financial lives in great shape.