Would one unexpected bill put you over the edge financially? If so, you’re hardly alone. One study found that fewer than half of Americans have enough financial cushion to last them three months, including one-quarter who say they have no savings at all.
But there’s an antidote to this financial stress, and that’s having an emergency fund set aside. Here’s everything you need to know to put your mind at ease.
What is an emergency fund?
Few financial concepts are quite this straightforward: An emergency fund is exactly what you think it is: a monetary buffer you have put away in case you need to replace your income for a prolonged period of time. It also can be used for unexpected but expensive situations that arise, from needing new tires to a vet bill that’s not covered by insurance. Unlike retirement savings, which is often invested for the long term, an emergency fund should be “liquid,” in that you can use it right away without having to sell a stock or incur taxes on protected funds.
So that you’re not tempted to spend this money on regular bills, it’s wise to keep it in a separate location, such as a savings account. While there’s no set amount that’s recommended, common advice is to put away three to six months of living expenses to cover essentials should you lose your job or need to take a break for caregiving responsibilities or to pursue a new career direction.
Where do I find the funds to fund my emergency account?
Saving that much money can seem daunting, particularly if you’re already living paycheck to paycheck. But if you really scrutinize your budget, you’re likely to identify relatively painless ways you can save. As we emerge from the pandemic, there may be more opportunities than ever if you specifically look for ways you may have become complacent over the past couple of years and allowed spending habits to creep up.
Maybe you started ordering groceries for delivery to keep your family safe during quarantine and are still paying that surcharge. Others signed up for several streaming services in search of fresh entertainment or regularly ordered takeout to support their favorite local bistro – expenses that could be rooted out and redirected.
Pull out your bank account and credit card statements or look at them on your mobile app and check out your outlay over the past few quarters. You might be surprised at long-forgotten products or services that are being auto-billed and would be barely noticed if they were canceled.
Figure out how much you can allocate to the emergency fund with these smaller amounts, and then think about ways you can supercharge it, such as:
- Putting a lump sum of money, like an end-of-year bonus, a tax refund, or a financial gift, in the fund
- Earmarking a percentage of your annual raise directly to emergency savings
- Taking on a temporary side hustle, such as delivering food or making and selling crafts, and devoting the proceeds
How can I keep it up?
Building momentum can do wonders for your self-confidence. Start small and steady: Think in terms of saving just $25 a week – one or two lunches or a workweek’s amount of purchased coffee – to save $100 a month. Then find a way to make a more substantial impact through other means – maybe you can boost it with an extra $300 earned from a side hustle and then a larger infusion of $1,000 from a bonus or tax refund. You’ll be surprised how fast the account accrues once you begin saving.
If you’re funding your emergency money with part of your paycheck, ask your company if they can deposit that amount directly into the savings account. Chances are you won’t miss the money if you never even see it.
Having an emergency fund can have an immediate positive effect on your peace of mind. Paying yourself first can result in improved financial mental health, and getting the ball rolling is the first step. Think of your emergency fund as your umbrella for that rainy day which may be just around the corner.