Building an emergency fund is one essential way to protect yourself from financial emergencies. And, it’s one of the first steps you can take to start saving. Large or small, these unplanned expenses often feel like they hit at the worst times. 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.
By putting money aside — even a small amount — for these unplanned expenses, you’re able to recover quicker and get back on track towards reaching your larger savings goals.
The emergency fund is your safety net in the event of such bad surprises. It gives you a buffer to keep you going until you figure out a more sustainable solution for the situation. An emergency fund will grant you the freedom to make good decisions in the time of a crisis.
If you’re living paycheck to paycheck or don’t get paid the same amount each week or month, putting any money aside can feel difficult. But, even a small amount can provide some financial security. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you start building your emergency fund.
How much should I start saving for my emergency fund?
How much money you should have in your fund is up to each person’s needs and requirements. Conventional wisdom says to save for 3 to 6 months worth of your monthly expenses, including rent, mortgage, major bills, food, etc. Do not get discouraged by this number. The most important thing is to start saving. The amount you need to have in an emergency savings fund depends on your situation. Think about the most common kind of unexpected expenses you’ve had in the past and how much they cost. This may help you set a goal for how much you want to have set aside.
What if I can’t save 3 to 6 months of living expenses?
If expenses are tight, it may be tough to save that much. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t get discouraged and give up on the idea of building an emergency fund. Instead, commit to starting small.
A $1,000 emergency fund will be enough to cover any unexpected financial surprises that come up. You can save $1,000 over a year by putting aside just $38.50 per pay period if you’re paid biweekly. Over time, continue making contributions to your emergency fund . Eventually, you’ll reach that goal of having three to six months of living expenses saved up.
Where do I keep this emergency fund?
Where you put your emergency fund depends on your situation. You want to make sure this fund is safe, accessible, and in a place where you’re not tempted to spend it on non-emergencies. Here are a few options for where to put your emergency savings, and you can choose which one will work best for you.
You need safe, liquid options so that your money is accessible in times of need. High-yield savings accounts offer excellent liquidity. Some people also opt for checking accounts but separate your savings into a new bank account. This will allow you to view it as a different source and not be tempted to use it for other things. Then, set up an automatic transfer of the amount that you decided upon. As long as things happen on their own, your savings will grow without much effort.
But considering that your emergency fund will be sitting idle for a long time, it is best to opt for an account that lets your money earn some interest and allows easy access. These choices make it harder for you to dip into it, and you’ll also earn a bit of return on the money. Just ensure that this interest-gaining account also allows you to withdraw from it for little to no penalty.
How to start building your emergency fund
1. Set a goal
Before you do anything, decide how much money you want in your emergency fund, say, six months from now. Once you decide that, as mentioned above, break it down into achievable pieces. Decide on a specific number per week or month, whichever is easier for you to keep track of. Knowing this number will also help you decide how much spending or expenses you need to cut down on to meet your goal.
Write your goals down. Goals that you write down are 52% more likely to be successfully achieved. Try this savings planning tool or this Emergency Fund Calculator to calculate how long it’ll take you to reach your goal, based on how much and how often you’re able to put money away.
2. Track your money
You should know your spending and earning habits well enough to decide how large of an emergency fund you’re going to need. After you know how much you should set aside every month, you need to know where to take it from. For this, you need to know what your money is doing every day. The best way to know this is by tracking your transactions if you don’t already. You can track your spending through an app, the envelope system, or keep a small notebook with you to write each transaction down. It will give you a clear picture of what is standing between you and your saving goal.
3. Manage your cash flow
Your cash flow is essentially the timing of when your money is coming in (your income) and going out (your expenses and spending). If the timing is off, you can find yourself running short at the end of the week or month, but if you’re actively tracking it, you’ll start to see opportunities to adjust your spending and savings.
For example, you may be able to work with your creditors (like your landlord, utility companies, or credit card companies) to adjust the due dates for your bills. Or you can use the weeks when you have more money available to move a little extra into savings. This is one important first step in managing your money, regardless of whether you’re living paycheck to paycheck or have a tendency to spend more than your budget allows.
4. Find unique ways to add to your savings
It can be hard to find ways to set aside extra money but look for ways that money could be slipping through the cracks. Are there any services or expenses you could do without or cut back on?
Here are some ways to get started.
- Treat your emergency fund as a bill. Add your emergency fund to your regular bills; this will give it a sense of priority. If you need to start small, such as $10 per month, that’s still a good starting point.
- Take stock of all the goods and services that you use that are not strictly necessary, such as services you could perform yourself or spur of the moment spending choices, and put that extra money into your emergency fund.
- Put all loose change into a special jar just for your emergency fund.
- If you get a cash gift for your birthday, a holiday or another special occasion, you can add it to your emergency fund.
- Due to their size, tax refunds are a great stack of money to add to your emergency fund.
- If you have stocks, bonds, or mutual funds that pay regular income, you can divert that into your emergency stash for a while.
- Sell things you don’t need. If you want to get a good perspective on it, I suggest you check out Gary Vaynerchukand his series Trash Talk. Most of us have old phones, toys, exercise equipment, and electronics that you can sell and turn into cash.
5. Tackling debt while saving for an emergency fund
Instead of trying to put extra money toward debt, build up your emergency fund first — and see if there are ways to reduce your interest rate while you’re doing so.
Make minimum payments on your debt while you focus on building at least a starter emergency fund of several thousand dollars.
Once you have a few thousand dollars in the bank for emergencies, you can divide your extra cash between debt repayment and building up the rest of your emergency fund. You can also shift your focus to debt repayment until you get that taken care of and then aggressively build your emergency fund up to the three to six months’ living expenses goal once the high-interest debt is gone.
You’ll have to decide which approach is best, given the interest rate on your debt and how much risk you face of experiencing a really big emergency.
What if you’re already in debt?
Deciding whether to start building up an emergency fund or focus aggressively on paying down debt is difficult. Your lender likely charges a much higher interest rate than you’ll earn on your emergency fund. It may seem silly to have money sitting in the bank while you pay interest.
However, in almost every case, it makes sense to save for an emergency fund before beginning an aggressive plan to pay down debt. This never means skipping minimum payments — you always need to pay the minimums. But, unless you have very high-interest consumer debt, like payday loans or a credit card with a penalty interest rate, it makes sense to save for an emergency first.
While the math may point you in the other direction, the problem comes when that inevitable emergency strikes. If you’ve been sending all your extra cash to your credit card and your transmission breaks or you lose your job, you may find yourself charging another $2,000 on a credit card that you just paid off.
This can make you so discouraged that you stop taking steps to improve your finances. You could also become trapped in the never-ending cycle of paying down debt and then ratcheting it back up when an unexpected expense arises.
6. Bring in extra income
There are only two ways in which you can increase your savings — either by spending less or earning more. According to a Bankrate survey, around 44 million Americans have a side hustle, and more than a third of them make more than $500 monthly from their side gig. You could build your emergency fund quickly by working a side job for a limited period of time.
Negotiate a raise or take up side gigs, to save up a good enough fund. If you have the time and the drive to make some side money, this will greatly speed up the process. It can also turn into a long term hustle and a good way to make some extra money on the side long-term. There are many ways you can go about this, and I would recommend getting supplemental income revolving around something you are passionate about. There is an abundance of freelance work out there for any passion. Look into websites like Fiverr, Upwork, and Freelancer if you are considering freelancing.
If you are not considering freelancing there are many apps out there where you can make some cash, like Doordash, Uber, and Instacart. You even apply for a part-time job if you are able to fit that into your schedule.
Start building your emergency fund as an insurance policy. Once you have it, guard it carefully. Set some guidelines for yourself on what constitutes an emergency or unplanned expense. It’s not a piggy bank. You should not use it for incidental expenses or pull from it when you want to buy something new.
Use the fund only in the event of an emergency. Spend it carefully when you do need to draw on it. Remember, once that money is spent, it always takes much longer than anticipated to replace it. Start now and save whatever you can, even if it isn’t much. However, don’t be afraid to use it if you need it. If you spend down what’s in your emergency savings, work to building it up again. Practicing your savings skills over time will make this easier.