The emergency fund is an important pillar of any financial plan, the safety net that enables you to pay the bills and keep your financial goals on track in the event of a job loss, costly home repair, or sudden illness.
But very few have enough savings set aside to stay afloat in the event of an unexpected or emergency financial need.
According to MassMutual’s 2018 State of the American Family survey, more than half (52 percent) of families with household income of $50,000 or more and at least one dependent had less than three months’ worth of readily available savings set aside. Roughly 8 percent had nothing at all.
“People underestimate how much they need for emergencies and partly because no one has taught them how to save for a rainy day,” said Cynthia Richards-Donald, a financial professional with Premier Wealth Transfer Group in Charlotte, North Carolina. “If you’re used to instant gratification, you’re not going to have any money available when you need to fix your car or you find yourself unemployed.”
Without an emergency fund, she explained, you may be forced to rely on high-interest credit cards, drain your 401(k), or take out a loan to provide for a sudden financial need. That not only creates a cycle of debt, but can also negatively impact your long-term financial security.
How much do you need?
But just how much do you need and how do you save for a rainy day with so many demands on your income?
Conventional wisdom has long held that most households need a minimum of three to six months’ worth of living expenses (not income) tucked away in a liquid, interest-bearing account, such as a money market account or certificate of deposit. But that was before the Great Recession of 2008.
“During the recession, people found themselves unemployed or underemployed for quite some time, so now we advise married couples to have nine months to 12 months' worth of savings. And singles who don’t have a second income to fall back on should to have 12 to 18 months of savings set aside,” said Richards-Donald.
Err on the longer side if your job security is in question.
That figure may be less daunting than you imagine. Richards-Donald stresses that an emergency fund need only cover your fixed monthly expenses, such as your housing, food, and utility bills. (Related: Adjusting your budget when a major expense hits)
“In a financial emergency, you can cancel your cable bill and any other discretionary expense,” she said. “Just look at what it costs to run your household.”
Your financial professional can help you determine what size safety net is appropriate for you. The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) also offers a detailed online calculator to help you assess your emergency fund needs.
Building up your savings
If you don’t have enough saved, don’t despair. Once you determine how much you need, you can start making regular contributions to an account and slowly build your emergency fund.
“It doesn’t matter how much you are able to save each month,” according to the NEFE website. “The important thing is making the commitment so that monthly savings become a habit. This single act will help you toward a healthier financial future.”1
Indeed, to be successful long term, you must make savings a priority and create a budget to keep your spending in check. (Learn more: Establishing financial goals)
Richards-Donald said to start by paying yourself first, meaning you siphon off money for savings each month before it lands in your checking account. Better yet, take temptation off the table by setting up an automatic deposit from your checking to savings account every pay period.
“I often tell clients to open an account in a credit union or somewhere that you can’t take money out with an ATM card, so it’s more difficult to access the money,” she said. “Even if you save $40 a week, that’s $160 per month. Little by little, you will build up your emergency fund.”
Change spending habits
Small changes to your lifestyle, such as inviting friends over for drinks and board games on Friday night (or teleconference happy hours when social distancing is required) rather than spending money at bars and restaurants can also free up hundreds of dollars of disposable income per month. Or, if you’re married, consider sharing one car until you’ve reached your savings goal.
While you save for a rainy day, just be sure you continue to make payments on any student loans or credit card balances you may owe, while also contributing enough to your retirement plan to get any employer match that may be offered, said Richards-Donald.
Other tips? NEFE suggests using new money from bonuses, raises, or tax refunds to funnel extra dollars into your emergency fund. You can also cancel unused gym memberships, start a side hustle, or rent a spare room out in your home for extra bucks.
Your employer may even be able to help, indirectly. NEFE suggests savers weigh their workplace benefits carefully, especially when searching for a new job. Any money you manage to save on health insurance, life insurance, matching retirement savings, tuition, or transportation reimbursement is money you can use to boost your savings.
“There’s real psychological power in knowing that you have the funds to rely on if you encounter unexpected expenses or a job loss in the future,” NEFE writes on its website.
Learn more from MassMutual…
Calculator: How much should I save for retirement?
The article was originally published in September 2018. It has been updated.
1 National Endowment for Financial Education/Smart About Money, “Increase Savings and Rebuild Your Emergency Fund.."