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An emergency fund is a stash of money set aside for unplanned, urgent expenses. When you need to cover critical purchases such as a home or auto repair, a medical bill or another financial emergency, an emergency fund can help you cover the cost without having to borrow.
Not all cash flow problems are true emergencies, however, and unnecessarily tapping into your savings can leave you high and dry when a critical need arises. Before you make a withdrawal, learn about when you should use your emergency fund—and when you shouldn't.
When to Use Your Emergency Fund
You should use your emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses that absolutely can't wait, or will result in severe consequences if they aren't paid. In other words, you shouldn't use your emergency fund to cover routine expenses or discretionary spending.
True financial emergencies need to pass a two-pronged test:
- Consequences: Your life will be significantly disrupted if you don't pay the expense—think eviction or vehicle repossession.
- Urgency: The need is immediate.
Common Uses for an Emergency Fund
It's a good idea to set clear boundaries for how you'll use your emergency fund. Common reasons to tap into an emergency fund include:
- Job loss: It may be impossible to meet your living expenses without income, and that's where your emergency fund comes in. As you're looking for a new job, you can use the money you have set aside to pay your bills and other necessary expenses.
- Medical or dental expenses: Having enough cash available to cover emergency medical bills or dental expenses can help you avoid taking on high-interest credit card or loan debt.
- Pet care: Emergency savings can cover care when beloved pets need costly veterinary services.
- Home needs: When your roof, water heater or plumbing system breaks down and needs replacing, the cost can exceed allowances in your monthly budget. To prevent further damage and disruption, you can use your emergency fund.
- Car repairs: As your vehicle ages, you'll likely need to make repairs. It's best to factor things like tires and tuneups into your monthly budget, but unexpected major repairs may require you to tap the money in your emergency fund—especially if you rely on your vehicle to get to work.
- Children's needs: Your first-grader suddenly outgrows their car seat or your teenager's laptop breaks and needs to be replaced. Whatever the case, children are expensive and unexpected costs do come up. The funds in that emergency account can protect your family.
- Technology replacement: You dropped your cellphone in a sink full of water and need the device for work. You can't exactly go without a cellphone, and your emergency fund may be able to cover a replacement.
- Essential travel: If a loved one falls ill, you may need to jump on a plane to be at their bedside. Last-minute travel can cost plenty, but cash from your emergency fund can help you avoid coming up short.
Whatever your reasoning for tapping into your emergency fund, be sure to replenish the funds as soon as you can. You never know when another urgent situation may arise.
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How Much Should I Have in My Emergency Fund?
A good rule of thumb is to keep enough in your emergency fund to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses. Keep in mind that the more people you have depending on you, the more you may want to set aside for emergencies.
To get an idea of how much you should keep in emergency savings, look over your living expenses as a guide. Examine your budget, listing only those expenses that absolutely must be covered every month. These typically include:
- Mortgage or rent
- Child and pet care
Add them up and then multiply that figure by three. That would equal three months' worth of necessary expenses, which would cover you and those in your care in case you lost your job.
As an example, let's say you need a minimum of $1,500 to keep your household running each month. If there is an interruption in your income, an emergency fund of at least $4,500 ($1,500 x 3) will protect you for three months.
If you have a sudden windfall, you may want to increase the amount of money in your fund to a figure that feels more comfortable. Even if it takes you beyond six months' worth of basic expenses, it doesn't hurt to add additional funds as a just-in-case measure.
Where to Keep Your Emergency Fund
It's best to keep your emergency fund easily accessible but not intermingled with other money. Avoid keeping your emergency savings in your checking account, for example. That's because the money you've set aside for emergencies will get muddled with the funds you use to cover your day-to-day expenses. It's best not to blur the line between long- and short-term savings.
Your best places to keep an emergency fund are:
- High-yield savings account: Look for a savings account at a financial institution that's separate from your checking account, and with a higher interest rate.The higher the rate, the more money your savings will generate. Consider splitting up your direct deposit to set aside a portion of each paycheck into the account.
- Money market account: Banks, credit unions and brokerages offer money market accounts, which also offer higher interest rates than standard savings accounts. They may expect a monthly minimum balance (making it less tempting to dig into if you don't have to) and maintenance fees.
- Certificate of deposit (CD): CDs, which are low-risk investment products offered by financial institutions and brokerages, can also be good for emergency accounts because their interest rates can be much higher than other savings vehicles. However, you will have to keep the money invested for a term or be subject to a fee for an early withdrawal. To avoid the fee, you can create a CD ladder that allows you to purchase CDs with varying terms.
Wherever you put your money, don't stop saving until you reach your desired amount. When you hit your personal threshold, you can apply the extra funds to your other financial goals. A simple way to build an emergency fund is to have a fixed amount of money deducted from your checking account and deposited automatically into savings.
The Bottom Line
Building and maintaining an emergency fund is one of the most adult money moves you'll ever make—and you'll always be grateful that you did. Not only will it help you make ends meet when times are tough, but it can also provide peace of mind when times are stable.
To ensure your funds are there for you when you need them, avoid tapping into your savings when it isn't absolutely crucial.