Building and maintaining an emergency fund is an important financial cornerstone. If you don't have one, you should start saving today.
There are keys to avoiding ruin by financial emergency. One is to maintain your credit score, the other is to build up your savings. And while a good credit score is important, its the savings that will really—well—save you!
Specifically, you should create a well-stocked emergency fund. That way, you can cover unforeseen bills and financial shortfalls instead of relying on bad credit loans and possibly entering a dangerous cycle of debt.
Rest assured: Financial surprises are going to happen, and you want to make sure that you’re prepared. That’s why we reached out to a number of financial experts who can explain how emergency funds work and how you can go about building one today.
What is an emergency fund?
Nicolás Valdés-Fauli is a Certified Financial Planner with Main Street Financial Solutions in New York City. He provided a general overview of how emergency funds work and the many benefits that they offer. According to him, establishing an emergency fund is one of the most important parts of establishing a financial plan.
“An emergency fund is exactly what it sounds like, a fund or an account of easily accessible money used in case of an emergency—job loss and unexpected medical expense amongst others,” he said. The fund is intended to cover one’s monthly living expenses including, “mortgage payments, rent, insurance premiums, cell phone bills, groceries and everything else you need to maintain your existing life,” according to Valdés-Fauli.
“There are insurance products that cover all sorts of loss. Think life insurance, renters insurance, car insurance, homeowners, disability, on and on. But there is nothing that covers something as broad-based as an emergency. Typically, people need to self-fund, meaning, they need to save their own money to cover these events.”
Unlike traditional savings, which you don’t want to touch until you retire, the money in your emergency fund needs to be easy to access:
“An emergency fund should always be liquid, meaning it should be accessible without a penalty,” explained Valdés-Fauli. Cash in the mattress is never a good idea (fire, theft, inflation), and an emergency fund should be kept in a financial institution. Avoid using CD’s, life insurance policies and retirement accounts, as there are probably penalties with early withdrawals.
He also specified that your emergency fund shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest of your savings: “It should be a separate account from a savings account designated for a future expense such as a down payment, education bills or a vacation.”
How do you define an emergency?
Your car breaking down is an emergency. Your favorite band adding an extra concert date in town? Not so much.
“The definition of an emergency is a crucial step for the creation of an emergency fund,” said Ramsey Preferred Financial Coach Barry Jennings. “Without a clear understanding of what constitutes an emergency, most emergency funds fail before starting as birthdays and holidays pop up without notice and are resolved with the newly saved cash.”
“Within the context of my family, we define an emergency as anything that hinders or prevents the generation of income,” Jennings continued. “This could be things of a medical, transportation, or employment nature.”
“In the years past, grandmothers called the emergency fund a rainy day fund. They may not know when it was going to rain (an emergency was going to occur), but they knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. The simplest of purposes of an emergency fund is to self-insure against the appearance of Murphy’s Law.”
How big should your fund be?
“While funds stashed away for emergencies can serve multiple purposes (including a major car repair or replacing a furnace in the dead of winter), the most commonly cited reason to build an emergency fund is to allow folks to pay their monthly bills should an unexpected job-loss occur,” said Timothy G. Wiedman retired professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University.
“Thus, the fund must be large enough to cover housing (i.e., rent or mortgage payments), grocery bills, monthly utilities (including internet access), transportation costs, insurance (i.e., premiums for health, life, auto, homeowners/renters coverage, etc.), and even some occasional entertainment to keep the spirits up until a layoff is over or a new job can be found.”
“At an absolute minimum,” he advised, “the fund should cover three months of recurring expenses.”
That’s a lot of money! But while it’s best to start with a smaller goal and work your way up, a three-month found won’t be enough for many people to weather an unexpected job loss. This is why Wiedman suggests doing some calculations to figure out how much money you’ll need to (eventually) have in your emergency fund—especially as it relates to a realistic job search.
“Estimate how long it would likely be before a new job is found and paychecks resume,” he said. “Also take into account the length of time that unemployment benefits would be provided in a particular locale and estimate the amount of those payments (which will almost surely fall well short of covering your recurring living expenses).
“Then, consider the demand for your job skills in the immediate area, the local unemployment rate, whether relocation is a realistic option, your credentials (i.e., education, certifications, work experience, etc.), and how long it took to find your last job.”
“And further, also consider other factors that might slow down your search (e.g., a conviction—even for a misdemeanor that only resulted in probation, or advanced age given your profession—a 61-year-old unemployed airline pilot, for example,” he continued.
“Finally, realistically think about a bleaker job-search scenario (that might include a prolonged economic recession, for example). Given all of the factors mentioned above, is it really likely you’d find a new job in 90 days—or could your search easily last five or six months?”
“After an assessment of this sort, a great many folks will conclude that building a six-month emergency fund is a wise course of action,” Wiedman concluded. “Further, if you live in an area with high (or persistent) unemployment, or your skills are primarily only needed in a declining industry (underground coal mining, for example), having sufficient funds to cover nine to twelve months of unemployment would make good sense.”
Still, Wiedman was clear that you don’t know how much money you personally need in your fund until you sit down and do the calculations: “The size of an individual’s emergency fund depends upon a great many variables. So folks must analyze their personal situations, and act accordingly.”
Set a small goal—and grow from there.
“Most people are buried in debt, live paycheck to paycheck, and don’t have the means to handle even small emergencies with cash,” said Jennings. “As a financial coach, I address the behavior slowly and deliberately by having people set aside $1,000 initially as a starter emergency fund.”
But just because $1,000 is a good initial goal doesn’t mean that you should stop saving once you meet it. And as Jennings pointed out, continuing to address other areas of financial need—like your debt—will set you up for success in the long term.
“While people become accustomed to having a small amount of cash available for the unknown, they can begin to focus on becoming debt free except for their mortgage. This will free their income and make further saving possible,” he said.
Once people become debt free, Jennings advised that people continue building out their emergency fund to cover the aforementioned three to six month period. But what comes after that?
“After the completion of saving a fully funded emergency fund, people can focus on saving for retirement and education and paying off their mortgage early. When they have reclaimed the freedom of their income, they are able to focus on gaining wealth and building a legacy,” he said.
These folks can also continue building their emergency fund to cover the kinds of “unexpected shortfalls” that occurred after the 2008 financial crisis—taking their emergency savings from six months to two years. After all, Jennings noted that “even the Great Recession after 2008 only lasted 18 months.”
“This allows the comfort and peace of mind to find gainful employment, if such a need arises, during such difficult times,” Jennings concluded. “It also serves as an additional buffer for use prior to the accessing of retirement accounts, if market timing becomes a concern in the later stages of life.”
You’re going to need a budget.
One of the financial experts we heard from was Michele Lee Fine, RICP, Registered Representative and Financial Advisor of Park Avenue Securities and Financial Representative of Guardian Life Insurance. She shared the importance of the role that budgeting plays in building an emergency fund.
“First, you have to overcome the big three psychological barriers that keep many people from setting up a budget: Fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” she said. “Fear what you’ll discover when you examine your finances; Uncertainty about how to set up a budget; Doubt whether you can stick to a budget.”
Overcoming those barriers and building your first budget is going to mean getting specific. “Don’t guess how much money you have coming in and going out each month. Write it down,” said Fine. “There are lots of tools to help you, find a worksheet online and—bonus—it’s free. Keep track of all your expenses and sources of income.”
“Some experts suggest doing this for a few months to get a real picture of your financial situation, but starting to track for just a month will help you get some clarity,” she continued. “Scan your bank and credit card statements to see where it’s all going. Add up the expenses and subtract them from your income. This will tell you, at the most basic level, whether you are operating in the black or red.”
Once you have a picture of how you’re spending your money, you can set about actually building your budget. In order to find expenses you need to cut, Fine offered the following tips:
- “Examine current bills: See where the money is going and think of cutting out extras and finding cheaper alternatives.”
- “Pay with cash: There’s something about the tactile quality of cash that makes it hard to part with.”
- “Adjust your habits: All of us have habits that we fall into that can be revised and made more financially healthy.”
At this point, Fine suggests that some people may find it helpful to consult with a financial professional. “He or she can look at your numbers and help you put together a balanced budget that addresses all your needs, from meeting monthly obligations, building an emergency fund, saving for retirement to occasionally splurging,” she said.
Here’s how to get started.
One of the hardest parts of any financial journey is taking those first couple steps. That’s why Certified Financial Planner Christine Centeno, founder of the fee-only financial planning firm, Simplicity Wealth Management, offered these tips to help you get started.
- “Start Small: Start saving something small each paycheck or each month. Make it a realistic amount, something that you can easily accomplish. The key is to start saving even if its $25 per pay period. Over time you’ll be surprised at how much you have saved. Take advantage of tax refunds or bonuses to increase savings Instead of spending your entire tax return or bonus, aim to save a portion of it. Every little bit helps.”
- “Be consistent: Save every paycheck or every month. Don’t wait until the end of the year to transfer leftover funds to your emergency fund, you’ll be less likely to have funds left over.”
- “Pay yourself first: What does this mean? Save first before you pay any bills. If you are not sure how much you are able to save, I recommend using budgeting software like Mint to help determine how much you have left over each month.”
- “Automate it: Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account each month. Or, even better, set up part of your direct deposit to go directly into a savings account. This way you won’t even see it and be tempted to spend extra dollars that sit in your checking account.”
Responsible money management is a lot like exercising: It’s about building up the proper habits and making them part of your routine. The more you incorporate saving money into your everyday activities, the easier it will become!
Want fast savings? Start brown bagging it.
If you’re looking for one area of your life where you can find some immediate savings, Wiedman suggested substituting restaurant lunches with a brown-bag lunch made at home. This option even comes with the added bonus of eating healthier!
Wiedman laid out how the cost of a typical lunch combo at Applebee’s ($11.50) can easily turn into a weekly expense of $57.50—maybe even more if you decide to get the occasional dessert or if you have to drive the restaurant, thereby spending money on gas.
“On the other hand, a healthy lunch brought from home (e.g., a sandwich made with low-fat lunch-meat on whole-grain bread, a dozen peeled baby carrots, a small individually-sized box of raisins for dessert, and a can of diet soda) can be assembled for about $2.80 (i.e., $14 per week),” said Wiedman.
“Further, if that brown-bag lunch is eaten in the employee break room (or after a short walk to a nearby city park), no time or gasoline is wasted on a lunchtime commute. Over the course of a 49-week working year, the savings would exceed $2,100.”
And while opting for fast food would also save money versus a full restaurant lunch, Wiedman pointed out that people would still save a lot of money by choosing the brown bag option—plus, this meal is far healthier than fast food.
“If that fast-food lunch (including tax, of course) averaged just $6.85 per day, a brown-bagger would still save almost $1,000 per year (or even more if the cost of gas consumption is figured into the equation),” he said.
When it comes to the benefits of brown bagging, Wiedman speaks from experience:
“My wife and I brown bagged it for years (while taking turns assembling our lunches), so our annual combined savings were well over $4,000, and the money we saved was used to fund our IRAs each year. But this method is also an excellent way to ‘painlessly’ build an emergency fund.”
Save more money, save your future.
An emergency fund isn’t a silver bullet to solve all your financial problems. You should still be investing money for your retirement, taking care of your credit score, and doing your research before making any financial commitments, whether that be a mortgage, a personal loan, or an “exciting business opportunity.”
But a well-stocked emergency fund is still an important financial cornerstone. It helps protects you from financial disaster, giving you some much-needed security so that you can safely build on top of it.
Even opting for a safer, more affordable loan when you encounter a financial shortfall pales in comparison to the benefits of having an emergency fund.
If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one now. Your future self will thank you.
Christine Centeno, CFPⓇ, MS is the founder of Simplicity Wealth Management. She has over 11 years of industry experience as a financial advisor and is a member of several professional organizations including NAPFA, FPA, and the XY Planning Network. Christine also holds her Masters in Financial Planning. In 2019, after years of working for large firms, she founded her own firm. Simplicity Wealth Management provides clarity to the complicated nature of financial planning and investing by delivering comprehensive advice without hidden fees and unnecessary jargon that leaves you in the dark. The goal is to deliver transparent, easy-to-understand guidance to help clients achieve their financial goals and remain informed every step of the way.
Nicolás Valdés-Fauli, CFP® opened the New York City office of Main Street Financial Solutions in 2010. He has served his clients in NYC and South Florida since 2002. A graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and Wesleyan University, Nicolas lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.
Barry Jennings has taken 30 years of experience in psychology, life and health insurance sales, automobile sales and financing, student loan processing and college funding consulting and turned it into a financial coaching business, Soul without Fear. He empowers his clients to make positive changes to their financial situation by helping them create a written plan, start an emergency fund, eliminate debt, save for retirement and college, and build a legacy for their families.
Michele Lee Fine, RICP is the Founder and President of Cornerstone Wealth Advisory, LLC located in Jericho, NY. She is a graduate of New York University and participates in several trade and community organizations such as NAIFA; Westchester Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors; 100 Women in Hedge Funds Organization; Women’s International Zionist Organization; Cabinet Member of Israel Bonds, USA; and is a JNF Board Member.
After 13 years as a successful operations manager working at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies, Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman spent the next 28 years in academia teaching college courses in business, management, human resources, and retirement planning. Dr. Wiedman recently took an early retirement from Doane University (@DoaneUniversity), is a member of the Human Resources Group of West Michigan and continues to do annual volunteer work for the SHRM Foundation. He holds two graduate degrees in business and has completed multiple professional certifications.
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