How Much Should You Have in an Emergency Fund?

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Emergency fund in jar against yellow background

Every weekend at The Money Ninja I’ll take a reader question on anything related to personal finance. If you have a question that you need answered, please ask me by leaving a comment in this post.

This weekend’s question comes from Talen C. of Boston, MA:

How much should I have in an emergency fund?

Everyone should have an emergency fund, but how much money you need in it will depend on your own circumstances. Here’s what an emergency fund is and how to calculate the right amount you need.

What is an emergency fund?

An emergency fund is exactly how it sounds – it’s a pool of money that is meant to cover financial expenses that come from unexpected events that happen in life:

  • Job loss (being laid off, getting fired, or just giving your boss the middle finger)
  • Car repairs (repairing your suspension joints costs WHAT?)
  • Medical or dental emergency (big ouchies)
  • Home catastrophes (fire, flood, robbery)

I read a CNBC article stating that a staggering 60% of us didn’t have $1,000 saved up to cover an unexpected life event. Without enough savings, they say most people are instead putting those surprise expenses on their credit cards or taking out personal loans that charge high interest rates. Yikes.

Bankrate Infographics showing how much the largest expense people faced was

Then there’s this Bankrate infographic that says of those who experienced an unexpected expense in the last year, over 80% had one that costed $1,000 or more. A shocking 36% of them had an emergency situation that was over $5,000!

It goes to say that not having a rainy day fund will mean you’ll be forced to borrow money at high interest rates, and that’s not The Money Ninja way. We want people to be properly prepared and ready for life’s many curve balls.

Why do I need an emergency fund?

Having an emergency fund provides you with 3 major benefits:

1. It provides peace of mind and reduces stress

When an unexpected emergency happens, it threatens your financial stability and causes stress. If you’ve prepared for it, you’ll have a better peace of mind knowing things will be okay – it’s just a temporary inconvenience that will eventually pass.

On the other hand, not having a safety net will cause you to constantly worry about living on the financial edge and place heavy stress on an already unpleasant situation.

2. It keeps you from making bad financial decisions

If…. no… WHEN an unexpected emergency happens, having money set aside will protect you from making bad choice. There’s so many ways to get money quickly, but none of the options are financially smart.

You can get a payday loan or use your credit card for example, but at what cost? The interest, fees, and penalties associated with borrowing money are a few of the disadvantages of not having an emergency fund.

3. It helps you from spending impulsively

Remember the last time you got that tax refund or end-of-year bonus? If you’re like most people, you probably spoiled yourself and spent it on nice things. It’s tempting to impulsively buy stuff when you get a nice big pile of cash.

If the money was put directly in your emergency fund instead, you’d be less tempted to spend it. In your mind, it’s your emergency savings and not a spending account you’d use to buy that new electronic gadget or designer leather purse (however appealing that may be)!

How much do I need in an emergency fund?

How much you’ll need depends on your circumstances. It’s not a one size fits all answer. First you need to calculate what your base expenses (I call it survival needs) are per month, taking into consideration the following:

  • Housing (rent or mortgage amount)
  • Car (auto insurance, gas, and maintenance)
  • Food (groceries)
  • Health and Dental (insurance and out-of-pocket)
  • Utilities (electricity, oil, gas)
  • Debt Repayment (student loans and credit cards)

Don’t include things that you’d cut from your budget if an emergency happens, for example:

  • Entertainment
  • Dining-out
  • Shopping
  • Vacations

The total you get after adding all those expenses up is considered your per month burn rate. Now, you need to multiply that per month rate by the number of months you’ll need and that will be the total emergency fund you’d want to have.

But how many months in that?

In a nutshell, most financial gurus recommend at least 3-6 months, but I recommend at least 6 months. If you want to be a ninja warrior all-star (I mean, you are reading this post), I would aim for 12 months. It’s a lot, I know, but you’ll thank yourself if for instance you lose your job in the middle of a bad economy. That year of not worrying about how to pay for things will be a life saver.

Where should I put my emergency fund in?

It should be held in a risk-free account and readily available at a moment’s notice.

That rules out anything involving short-term risks like buying stocks. Stocks are meant to be held as long-term investments. If your money is invested in the stock market, it could mean your money is worth 20% to 40% less when you need it the most. In the last two recessions, the stock market lost 37% in 2008 and 22% in 2002.

Even risk-free accounts like Certificate of Deposits (CDs) should be avoided since most CDs require a minimum holding period. If you take money out before that time is up, the bank will charge you an early withdrawal penalty.

The only place your emergency fund should be held in are savings accounts. One with no minimums, no fees, no nothing – but that doesn’t mean you should put it in a typical savings account with low interest rates.

Here at The Money Ninja, we’re all about maximizing your finances, even when it comes to your emergency savings. Your cash should be put in something that will earn you the most until you need it.

That’s why I recommend CIT Bank’s Savings Builder, a savings account with interest rates that are 26x higher than your average bank account. You can also read my review of it where I gave it an outstanding 9.5 out of 10 stars.

The Bottom Line

Having an emergency fund is one of the first things you should take care of in your financial journey. In terms of priority, there’s only several items that should ahead of stashing away for an emergency fund:

  • Credit card debt
  • Personal loans
  • Payday loans

That’s because those types of debts or loans usually charge you high interest rates. It would be cheaper in the long run to take care of those three things first and then focus on building up your emergency savings.

What about you? Do you have an emergency fund yet or are you thinking of starting one? How many months are you aiming for?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this! My husband and I have heard about having an emergency fund before, but didn’t know how much we should put into it or where to store it. This helps!

    What about situations where couples don’t have credit card debt, but they only have a limited amount of leftover money. Should this be put into an emergency fund or a retirement account like a 401k or IRA?

    • Hi Mary – good question! With all the possibilities of where to put your money, it can be confusing! I will make a master post on this soon, but to answer your question, I recommend putting your money to the ones that pay down the the most debt first. Since you don’t have credit card debt, I would:

      1. Contribute to a 401k to at least get the maximum employer matching contributions. If your employer matches up to 6%, then contribute 6%.

      2. Create or contribute to your emergency fund until you have at least 6 months worth of living expenses saved up for.

      3. Turn your focus back on your retirement by either continuing to put money in your 401k, or in your IRA/Roth IRA.

      There’s too many details for a comment section, but stay turned for a more in-depth article!

  2. “Then there’s this Bankrate infographic that says over 80% of people will have an emergency in the next 12 months that will cost $1,000 or more.”
    That is a colossal misrepresentation of what that infographic shows.

    First, the group of people in the graphic are those who say they faced a financial emergency in the last year. Everyone else who said they did not face a financial emergency are not represented (and are likely far more numerous).
    Second, the value shown is the largest that any family member experienced, so if a family of 10 had 9 members with a small financial emergency ($5000), all 10 would correctly respond to the survey with >$5000 even if only one person actually experienced that level of severity.
    Third, there is no predictive value in what some small survey group experienced in one year. If this was a multi-year scientific survey there might be some predictive power, but statistics like this will change year to year on based on many economic factors.

    • Hi Jorge, I agree. It should have said, “of those who had an emergency.” I have corrected this – thank you for bringing this to my attention.

      I think the main point of this post remains though, that the majority of people (who had or didn’t have an emergency in the last 12 months) are ill-equipped to deal with a major financial crisis. The CNBC article I mentioned prior showed that 60% of people didn’t have $1,000 saved up for an unexpected event.

      A few surveys are not representative of a collective whole, but if I were to bet, I would say national statistics would show something pretty similar.

      Thank you for your thoughts though – I hope you stick around and let me know of any other feedback 🙂

  3. Each of us must independently determine the size of such a fund, but personally I feel calm when its size is not less than my monthly income in tenfold.

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