The Ways and Means of Coping with Emergencies

Experts have been touting the importance of having an emergency fund since Moses was a lad. So why is it that so many people still don't have enough (or any?) money set aside just in case? Reasons and rationales abound.

“I'm paying off my debt. That's the most important thing.”
With the amount of debt people are buried in, it's no wonder people want to get rid of it as fast as they can. But having a single focus is never a good way to create balance. Money in the bank gives you options — ways to deal — so that you can stay on track with debt repayment even when bad things happen.

Having no cash at the ready means you'll no doubt be forced to use your credit to deal with a broken furnace, unexpected medical bills, or replacing that tire you blew on the highway. Accessible cash means you can keep to your debt-repayment plan and deal with whatever crisis — large or small — that has come knocking on your door.

“I can't see the point of letting money sit earning next to nothing.”
While it can be a really sad thing to watch thousands of dollars languishing in a savings account, return isn't the priority with an emergency fund. Access is. Stick that money into the market and it may not be there just when you need it most. Stick it in a high-interest savings account and while you may be irked by the pittance you're earning in interest, the emergency fund will be at the ready when you hit the wall. The point is to have some wiggle room when the unexpected happens.

“I have $1,000. That's enough.”
$1,000 may be enough of an emergency fund if you live under a rock. Yes, you'll need less of a buffer if your home is paid for, you have no debt, you walk everywhere you go, and you're happy eating ketchup soup three nights a week. If you want a realistic emergency fund — one that actually gets you though the rough — figure our your monthly essential expenses and multiply by six. That's how much you need.

Unemployment insurance may help fill the gap if you lose your job, but it doesn't go far. And unemployment isn't the worst emergency you may face. Get sick and watch your money evaporate. Even if you have good health and disability insurance plans, your cash flow will still take a kicking until your benefits click on.

“Who needs an emergency fund when you can use a line of credit?”
The people telling us to get an LOC is an emergency fund are the same people who let us buy houses without enough money down, offered us ways to satisfy all your whims while spending money we hadn't yet earned, and continually raised our limits until many of us had enough debt to bury an elephant.

A line of credit is not an emergency fund…it is debt waiting to happen. If you hit a wall and end up racking up tens of thousands in debt on an LOC, how was that diverting disaster?

The Ways-and-Means Fund
Perhaps the problem with the whole emergency fund thing is that people don't like to think they'll have to deal with “emergencies.” It's not unlike the folks who won't make a Will because they don't want to contemplate their demise, or who won't buy disability insurance because they can't imagine becoming disabled.

Maybe we're just calling it by the wrong name. The whole idea of having to deal with “emergencies” can be a real downer. Maybe what we need is nomenclature that sounds far more proactive and positive. We'll stop predicting disaster and instead focus on the fact that when you have money at the ready, you also have ways and means to deal with whatever life pitches at you.

Hmmm…a Ways-and-Means Fund…cash in the bank that gives us the means so we can figure out ways of dealing with life's lumps. Your son breaks his arm playing in the yard, and you have the means — the money — you need to take a day off work, get him to the hospital, and cope in whatever other ways you must. Your partner is downsized and you have the means to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table until he finds new ways of bringing home the bacon. You bang up your car, watch your shingles blow off in a wind-storm, or find yourself in the throes of a divorce, and you have the means to keep the financial boat afloat while you find ways to cope with all the other stress in your life.

Convinced that having The Means offers you more Ways of smoothing out life's bumps? Now it's just a matter of coming up with the dough. It takes effort to knead intent into action.

Getting started
The best way to create your Ways-and-Means Fund is to set up an automatic deduction from your regular account to a high-interest savings account. If you don't have much to save, it doesn't matter — the important thing is just to start…to convert your intent into action. As long as you haven't started, you're not creating the means for dealing with what life will inevitably throw at you. Commit $25 per pay to your Ways-and-Means Fund. Once you've begun, you're on your way and then it only becomes a matter of how to boost the amount you're setting aside to grow your stash of cash.

Most people have expenses they can trim to boost the money going to their Ways-and-Means Fund. Do you buy coffee every day on the way to work? Calculate how much you're spending, cut it in half, and send the difference to your Ways-and-Means Fund. Smoke? If you smoked half as much, how much would you be able to sock away? Pick up the latest magazine at the checkout counter?

Subscribe to premium cable? Go out for a drink with your friends after work? Buy your lunch at work? Pick up your favorite “stuff” whenever it's on sale even though you already have 30 pairs of shoes, white shirts, handbags, DVDs, name your vice here. How quickly could you build your Ways-and-Means Fund by focusing on being safe as opposed to being satiated?

If you're determined to keep all your small indulgences, try the tit-for-tat approach to building your Ways-and-Means Fund. Each time you satisfy a Want, contribute an equal amount to your Ways-and-Means Fund. Not only will it make you really think about whether you're going to spend the money — in essence whatever you buy is going to cost your cash flow twice as much — you'll be giving yourself options for the future while you enjoy yourself today.

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Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

Great job refuting some of the common excuses people can have to creating an emergency fund.

The hardest balance for me is how much of an emergency fund to have when still actively getting out of debt. And in addition, do economic times like these dictate changing course and saving even more of a fund while still in debt?

This article has gotten me rethinking my personal view on emergency funds and how much I should have.

the weakonomist
the weakonomist
11 years ago

I have to disagree with the idea that people can’t stand the thought of having money sitting around earning nothing. I’ve met with people from all walks of life in all levels of wealth (and lack thereof), no one has ever cited something like that as a reasoning for not having emergency funds. The people that know enough about money to actually think that way are the people smart enough to know what an emergency fund is and why they have it. The LOC bit is spot on though. My parents’ banking rep has tried to convince them to do… Read more »

katy
katy
11 years ago

Very thought provoking article. I like the idea of putting an equal amount in the wasnmeans fund for indulgences. And I’ll try to implement it. Puts another slant on things.

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
11 years ago

Ketchup soup – lol. I agree about the $1k emergency fund – it’s not much. I’m in the “It’s ok to use an LOC for an EF” camp. It seems to me that you are better off putting your emergency fund into debt – especially if you have a lot of it. If you use your emergency fund to pay off debt, and then end up borrowing it back again – you aren’t adding any debt. For example if you have $100k debt and $10k EF – then you put the EF into the debt so you then have no… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

I need someone to make a much stronger case to pay interest in order to have an ’emergency fund’. If you are in debt, and have access to additional credit, it doesn’t make any sense to put money in a savings account that you could be using to further pay down the debt. If you encounter an emergency, THAT’S when you rely on the high interest loan. That said, if you are not in debt, I would certianly suggest 6 months of after tax income in a liquid no/low risk account (my wife and I actually have about a year’s… Read more »

JimZ
JimZ
11 years ago

@4 & 5^^ That’s exactly the thought process that gets you into trouble. Yes, it’s logical, but its not helping you break the cycle. The fact that you are keeping the door open on that debt keeps you “in” that debt. Remember, one of the first steps out of debt is to swear off adding additional debt. If you keep the revolving LOC open, and pay it off with your liquid EF, then borrow from it again, you will never get you out of the borrowing cycle. It’s a process of habitual change that you need to accept and make.… Read more »

MMGC
MMGC
11 years ago

@5 – I think it’s a psychological benefit, not a financial one. For me, it definitely is, anyway. Being able to pay bills this month – beyond my means, but not beyond my emergency fund – without resorting to the credit card – has made me feel amazingly better about myself.

This coming from a college student some $12k in debt; validate at will.

KC
KC
11 years ago

I used to have the “I can’t stand to see my money earning nothing” syndrome. What cured me of this was a sudden auto accident that totaled a car we weren’t planning on getting rid of anytime soon. It was my husband’s car and he was going to need a new one w/i 30 days (insurance rental would expire at that time). We knew the insurance money for the totaled car would take a while (it ended up taking 45 days). But when you need to buy a car and don’t have the luxury of time to thoroughly shop you… Read more »

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
11 years ago

JimZ, your argument is quite valid. However, it seems to me that the debate about having an EF or not is dependent on individual factors so maybe statements like “everyone should have an EF” or “everyone should use a LOC for an EF” are not correct. Your SIL had bad credit so I suspect she is more at risk of losing her credit than someone who has a good credit rating. It might also depend on what kind of interest you are paying for your debt – if you have 18% interest rate debt outstanding then an EF is very… Read more »

Taylor at Household Management 101
Taylor at Household Management 101
11 years ago

Having an emergency fund is definitely very important. I was recently laid off, and having that fund in place has really helped me sleep at night. We haven’t had to dip into it much yet, with the severance and the unemployment benefits, but since my daughter recently had a small surgery we are happy to have the money there to pay when the bill comes in (we still have health insurance, thank God!). Thanks JD for calling everyone’s attention to the need for an emergency fund. Anyone can need it. I should know, I have not only a college degree… Read more »

Lydia
Lydia
11 years ago

Currently, my husband is the only one working at a very low income (about $1,400 a month). I’m trying to start my own business while looking for work. I’ve been out of work since February of last year. We got a wake-up call to start seriously saving back in January when my husband lost his job. We had a hundred dollars in a 0.03% interest savings account, just been sitting there. A penny in interest each month, and we occasionally borrowed from it. We never made it grow. Luckily, we had (and still have) no debt. Luckily, my husband got… Read more »

Charity
Charity
11 years ago

Great to see Gail Vaz-Ozlade!! Til’ Debt Do Us Part is one of my favourite TV shows, and I have my oldest kids hooked on watching it, too. :o)

I like the change of perception in calling the emergency fund the Ways & Means Fund.

John
John
11 years ago

Hi. Nice points about an emergency fund. Having cash on hand is a better way to deal with emergencies rather than credit. I keep about 4 months gross in the bank and I also keep a few thousand in cash at home just in case we need something in a hurry. Or in case something comes up that I can turn around for a profit quickly. Congratulations on the Mini. How are you handling the hidden expenses, like sales tax, title, registration fees or in my state (mass) excise tax which all add to the cost of buying a car.… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

No one has made a logical argument to pay interest to have cash available ‘just in case’. From a building wealth standpoint, I just don’t think it makes any sense.

If you want to build wealth more slowly, feel free.

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

@9: “Your SIL had bad credit so I suspect she is more at risk of losing her credit than someone who has a good credit rating.”

But even people with good credit are getting their credit limits reduced and/or their interest rates raised as they pay off debt.

Folks with good credit scores and solid credit histories are now getting caught in the fray. “Most banks are cutting their credit limits,” says Carol Kaplan, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “People with credit scores of at least 720…are not immune. They’re doing it to everyone.”

Zman
Zman
11 years ago

I’m thinking that laddered Certificates of Deposit should be an acceptable alternative to emergency funds in a money market. CDs can earn higher interest than MM, definitely higher than plain savings, and are nearly as liquid. The loss of interest penalty would only occur if the CD was redeemed early. Laddered at 3 month intervals, there would always be something coming up for renewal or redemption in the near future.

retired
retired
11 years ago

No matter your income, or insurance when you have a true medical disaster, you run out of insurance coverage, All insurance companies have a coverage limit. My husband got an infection in his spine, 6 surgeries in two months, 6 weeks in a care center flat on his back, pain medications a year of IV and oral antibiotics lead to over $500,000 in medical bills. Insurance coverage dropped to $50,000 life time coverage when my husband turned 65 and eligible for medicare. Our liability was $61,000. Medication had to be paid for up front. Not only this but we were… Read more »

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

Paul @13, here’s your logical case for saving an emergency fund before your debt is completely paid off. Stop paying health insurance. Stop paying life insurance. Stop paying disability insurance. Stop paying for home insurance. Stop paying business liability insurance. Hey, if you’re really serious about attacking debt, stop paying auto insurance, too, even though that’s illegal. You are probably paying hundreds, even thousands in insurance every year that could go to debt reduction instead. You are not even earning ING style interest on these payments. It is pretty likely that over the next 2-3 years, while you’re paying off… Read more »

JimZ
JimZ
11 years ago

Hey @9: ABC

That’s just it, it’s an inverse relationship. Folks with high interest loans are the ones who have a hard time justifying having cash on hand when they are paying high interest on a debt. I can see their reasoning.

But see — the thing is — anyone with an 18% loan already has bad credit, and is the poster-child for needing a cash-only EF.

ResortAtSquawCreekTAHOE
ResortAtSquawCreekTAHOE
11 years ago

Laddering CDs at 2.5-4% currently is the way to go. I’ve managed to save about $200,000 in a 2.75% 9 month option CD, which allows me to draw down to $5,000 if i need it. This week, I’m going to move $130,000 of my money market fund from one bank to a 5 year CD at 4.25%. I don’t need this money, and am fine to just earn 4.25% every year instead of 2.5% currently. This may, or may not sound like a lot of savings, but I also have about $1.5 million in mortgage indebtedness to pay interest on… Read more »

The Frugal Couple
The Frugal Couple
11 years ago

Another reason depending on a line of credit isn’t wise: right now, banks are cutting off the unused portions of LOCs.

If an LOC is the foundation of your emergency plan, it’s time to start thinking about other ways to prepare.

Steve in Montreal
Steve in Montreal
11 years ago

Boy am I glad I have an emergency fund at the ready and fully loaded. I was laid off, not downsized, right sized, restructured or whatever, I was laid off.
I have 6 months saved in a so called high interest savings account. I did this with the set it and forget it weekly deduction from my normal account.
It’s comforting to know I’ll still be able to cover my necessary bills and mortgage payments for a time. I will refund the account when I’m working again. It’s insurance without the fees and I get the premiums back.

JimZ
JimZ
11 years ago

@20, I think you know the answer. If you are getting 4% on the 30K and they are getting 2.6% of it, then you are yielding 1.4% on borrowed money. Where do I sign up?

xysea
xysea
11 years ago

I have a few layers of accounts, but you’re right access is key. I have one account that has $500, just for unexpected ‘minor’ emergencies. Since my car is older model and paid for, repairs usually don’t exceed that. Eventually I’d like to have $1000 in it. Then, I have another that has a few thousand in it for bigger emergencies. And I just opened another to be auto-funded by my checking account at $25/mo. It will add up over time. Who knows what I’ll call that one. The goal is to never be where I was: in debt, credit… Read more »

Ken
Ken
11 years ago

An emergency fund is priority one when it comes to winning with money. So many young couples can’t understand why they can’t get ahead but they never do this first step. Good post!

Kelly
Kelly
11 years ago

Paul @ 13 – If you lose your job you are still going to have to pay monthly bills, including the credit card bills. If you are unable to make the minimum payments on those credit cards your interest rates are going to go through the roof, not to mention ruining your credit. You might be able to sweet talk your credit card company for a month, but after that you’ll be over 20% interest. Good luck getting them to reduce that rate. You will end up paying a lot more in interest in the long run than if you’d… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I still think that having six months of living expenses siting around in cash is a ridiculous amount of overkill. $3,000 to $5,000 seems to be enough to cover most legitimate emergencies. If you lose your job, but you’ve got six months (or probably more) worth of expenses sitting in mutual funds (or wherever), you have plenty of time to withdraw some money before you run out of your $3,000 to $5,000 cash cushion. Yeah, maybe the market is down, and if it’s really, really down, like it has been lately, then you’ve only got four months instead of six… Read more »

Sara
Sara
11 years ago

@Mary: Great explanation! Self-insurance is the key.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

@ #20. Are you for real? If you’ve got that much money, hire a fee based financial planner!

I apologize if that sounds rude, but I can’t be the only reader here whose income amounts to less than a quarter of your expenses. It’s great that you’re doing so well, but I don’t think too many of us can give advice 🙂

Chamoiswillow
Chamoiswillow
11 years ago

Congratulations J.D.!!! You are an inspiration, and you deserve your Mini!!!

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
11 years ago

@JimZ #19 – yes, it occurred to me as I wrote that comment that people who have the worst debt problems probably need the cash EF more so than others (as you said). I guess that’s where the minimal $1000 EF suggestion comes into play – it’s enough to get through some of the rough spots but you aren’t costing yourself too much in interest charges.

I guess the moral of the story is to not to let debts get out of control in the first place? (yah, there’s some great 20/20 hindsight advice) 🙂

Holly
Holly
11 years ago

Man, I love Gail! I read her blog as often as I read this one. I was against the idea of an emergency fund for years, but then again I’m the perfect example of someone struck by little misfortunes that added up to a lot of debt. I found out that I dislike debt and paying interest MUCH more than having a few thousand dollars tucked away for surprises. And I saved while paying off debt. It can be done!

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

[email protected]: “If you lose your job, but you’ve got six months (or probably more) worth of expenses sitting in mutual funds (or wherever), you have plenty of time to withdraw some money before you run out of your $3,000 to $5,000 cash cushion. Yeah, maybe the market is down, and if it’s really, really down, like it has been lately, then you’ve only got four months instead of six months savings. Big deal.” Assuming that everyone has additional money in mutual funds — a rather big assumption — I still can’t agree with the option. I cannot anticipate PLANNING to… Read more »

retired
retired
11 years ago

I have two comments. 1. I see the logic behind calling a fund a layoff/unemployed fund. Set up two accounts: Emergency: An interest earning saving account, set up as an overdraft to your checking is a good idea. Layoff/unemployment: Something you could access with a little more difficulty but would earn more. The more you make the more you would need to put into this fund, especially if you wages are as contract or self-employment. 2. The premises behind “get rich slowly” applies to high as well as low-income earners. The more you make the more you have borrowed and… Read more »

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

(You know what, Tyler? That was snarkier than I expected. I’m sorry. But I really don’t think that investments should be treated as a supplemental emergency fund.)

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

@Mary: Maybe $3,000 to 5,000 is low for someone with an expensive mortgage. Maybe, if you were otherwise following my philosophy here, but had an expensive mortgage, it could be more like $5,000 to $10,000. The point here is to have enough to cover “day to day” emergencies (like unexpected car trouble), and give you enough time to access your other investments in the case you experience a more severe emergency. Here’s where we’re differing fundamentally: You say “…this means that someone has put a lot of money into the market before building a reasonably sized emergency fund.” And what… Read more »

mike
mike
11 years ago

One thing:

Do NOT put emergency money in a money market fund. There is a risk–however small–that you might not be able to get it back out. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the government had to intervene to prevent a run on money market funds that would have caused large losses for everyone involved.

Emergency funds belong in only one place and that is an FDIC insured bank account.

Kate F.
Kate F.
11 years ago

I’ve just reached my $1000 EF while paying down debt. I’ve noticed something interesting that I wasn’t expecting – Just having the EF makes me less willing to break into it. For me, the EF is for funding unexpected, unbudgeted expenses like car trouble or pet expenses(not for something major like getting laid off). I’ve had both car repairs and expensive vet bills in the past couple of months and I’ve been able to pay cash without dipping into credit or savings. The more I save, the less likely I am to break into it. I love seeing it grow.… Read more »

liz
liz
11 years ago

I LOVE GAIL! I wish she did a “get out of debt” show for non-couples…, but for now Til Debt Do Us Part still gives a great amount of advice – and this column of course is no different. While I may disagree with Gail on some points (education isn’t an investment worth going into debt for), her no-nonsense approach has helped me forge through some of my own debt issues. Thanks! @the folks above //why not leave your money (most of it, anyway) in the fund that grows until you need it// Er, cause the market can lose big… Read more »

J.Chu | SuccessRevolution.com
J.Chu | SuccessRevolution.com
11 years ago

Great Post !!!

Emergency fund prevents us from panic situation, which could direct us to debt

Cheers,

J.Chu

corey
corey
11 years ago

This is what has been working for me in this situation. I have a great deal of debt, but have been aggressively paying it off. I started putting $100/month into savings for emergencies. If no emergencies came up by the time it hit $1000, I used that $1000 as a bonus debt payment. Then I started over putting $150/month into savings until I hit $1000. This has helped me (1) pay off debt faster (2) have a little emergency cushion and (3) create solid savings habits. Last month, I was stuck with a huge unexpected car repair bill. I didn’t… Read more »

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

Tyler @36: “I think there’s nothing wrong with choosing the market and realizing that you can, in fact, sell these investments in the case of an emergency.” I’m willing to risk money for long term investments. I don’t expect to retire for 15-20 years, so I can deal with a portfolio that holds more stocks. But my emergency funds have to be safe, and in this economic climate, my emergency fund is going to be larger than it was before I bought this house. As liz says @38, I want my emergency funds well identified, segregated and safe. I’m sweating… Read more »

Des
Des
11 years ago

This topic is always a risk-reward calculation. Why stop at 6 months? Why not 12, or 24? What if your whole family gets in a car wreck AND gets cancer and you rack up $10 million in medical bills? Should you have a $10 million emergency fund, just in case? The point is not to prepare for ANY emergency, the point is to prepare for the most likely emergencies. So, someone with a very secure job (or one in high demand, or someone highly networked) can keep more of their E-fund in less liquid vehicles. No, it doesn’t always need… Read more »

Jasmine
Jasmine
11 years ago

Long time lurker, first time poster! I think Gail makes an excellent point in her post — “having The Means offers you more Ways of smoothing out life’s bumps”. I refer to my small-but-growing EF as my “Crap Happens” account. Perhaps I’m more risk-averse than other people, but the idea of $20K-$30K of emergency money sitting in the stock market makes me physically ill. For me, an EF is not meant to make money; it’s meant to keep me from falling back into debt **when** I’m faced with a job loss, catastrophic illness, or other major life upheaval — I… Read more »

Terrin
Terrin
11 years ago

The following passage is an example of not great advice. A financial emergency is a situation where nobody really knows what the ultimate resolution will be. It may be the case that one may lose his or her job and not find employment for years later. The benefit of using credit is that if things go really bad you may be able to file Bankruptcy if you need to do so and not have spent your savings. I see people every day who spend their entire retirements to try and survive a financial emergency. At the end of the day,… Read more »

Lane
Lane
11 years ago

I put about $2000 in mutual funds a couple of years ago, specifically for use during an emergency. Thankfully I haven’t needed that money, but if I did, I would only be able to get around $1100 at the momentdue to the market sagging. If (God forbid) I needed that money now, I would be taking a huge hit compared to what I initially invested. Not particularly smart money management. So from this point forward I’m putting additional emergency fund money in an FBNA savings account. It ain’t sexy or sophisticated, but at least it won’t lose half it’s value… Read more »

Avistew
Avistew
11 years ago

This article has perfect timing. Yesterday my husband (who has psoriasis) had a terrible flare-up on all of his body, that started swelling. We both panicked and he had to go to the hospital. Now, they need to keep him there for a few days. He is doing okay right now, but even though we’re in France where the costs won’t be a problem, it does highlight that emergencies can happen /anytime/. His psoriasis had been steadily getting better for years, and suddenly it’s worse than has ever been. There is no way we could have predicted it, and I… Read more »

db
db
11 years ago

To various posters thinking it’s silly to have a big EF — especially those thinking a credit card or LOC fits your needs just fine. The credit card or LOC is really only a poor substitute for having emergency funds readily at hand (which to me means 3 months of expenses in liquid savings and as many more months as you can swing either in liquid savings or staggered in CDs such that every three months one comes due with three months of expenses. If you REALLY need to rely on a cc or LOC, well ok. Just remember (A)… Read more »

paul
paul
11 years ago

For me it’s ridiculous to set aside money for any situation. I have one account that is a HELOC and my bank account. What’s the point of setting aside money when I can just write a cheque for any emergency. If I set it aside it just costs me money in lost debt payment. It’s all the same money from the same place. The EF is a silly old fashioned idea that sounds cool on paper, but is no longer necessary.

ResortAtSquawCreekTAHOE
ResortAtSquawCreekTAHOE
11 years ago

hi beth – i can tell you two things. 1) money doesn’t buy more happiness. i’m happy to live off of 80K/yr, but it just so happens i’m in a profession that pays 1st year associates out of business school 200k, and i’m a director (assoc, vp, director) so the total comp used to be around 500-800k in the good times, so now cut that in half. And, once i passed 100K, i was really no happier. hence, i’m just saving everything, but spend my entire 140K base every year and live it up. it’s enough for me, since 80k… Read more »

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