You might say Matt Matheson is the perfect picture of stability.
As a full-time educator, he enjoys great benefits and job security. He also runs a successful freelance writing and blogging business. He’s married with two healthy children, “one who’s potty training right now, which is the biggest ‘emergency’ I typically have to face on a daily basis,” he said. And yet, Matheson is no stranger to financial disasters.
Over the last seven years, Matheson estimates his family has averaged one $1,000 emergency every year. “One time it was the water heater, and another it was an unfortunate incident involving our laptop and some piping hot coffee (it didn’t end well for the laptop),” he said. “We’ve had unexpected deaths in the family requiring expensive flights, car repairs that went way beyond what we had budgeted for and an iPhone die an untimely death in a mug of hot tea.”
The one thing that saved his family’s finances each time? An emergency fund.
Matheson said having emergency cash on hand made covering these expenses way less stressful. “It also gave me a sense of financial empowerment and pride knowing that I had planned and executed a strategy to protect my family from financial hardships,” he said.
But despite the many benefits of having an emergency fund, many people don’t. In fact, nearly a quarter of Americans have no emergency savings at all and only 39 percent could cover an emergency of $1,000.
“It’s not a question of if you’ll have an emergency, it’s a question of when.”
Maybe that includes you. If so, don’t worry ― it’s never too late to build up an emergency savings account. Here’s how much you should aim to save.
What’s the right amount for an emergency fund?
Depending on whom you ask, the “perfect” emergency fund can come in different sizes. But one thing all experts agree on is that you need something set aside for unexpected expenses. “It’s not a question of if you’ll have an emergency, it’s a question of when,” said Rachel Cruze, a New York Times best-selling author and personal finance expert. “It’s important to build an emergency fund so that you’re not tempted to rely on debt when life happens. And trust me, it will happen!”
The generally accepted principle for an emergency fund is three to six months of after-tax living expenses, according to Mike D’Andrea, a financial planner and chartered financial consultant. He also said those funds should be saved in a stable, liquid interest-bearing account. That means you shouldn’t tie up your emergency savings in the stock market or illiquid assets like property; it should be readily available in a savings account that still lets you earn a bit of interest, too.
And although three to six months of expenses is the general standard, that might not be the right amount for everyone. Often, the size of your emergency fund should be based on your particular lifestyle and financial situation.
Here’s a look at how much you should have socked away if you fall into one of these circumstances.
How much to save if…
You have debt
Digging yourself out of debt can be a vicious cycle. You put every dollar you have available toward paying it off, and just when you’re about to become debt-free, a major expense hits. Now you have to borrow money again to cover the cost.
That’s why you should focus on building a small emergency fund before you think about tackling your debt. “If you have debt, the first thing you need to do is build a $1,000 starter emergency fund,” Cruze said. “Having this emergency fund in place will help to avoid the temptation to go further into debt to cover any surprise expenses.” Once you’re truly debt-free, you can go back to focusing on fully funding your emergency fund.
You’re the sole earner
If you have a partner or family member who contributes to the household income, financial emergencies can be easier to manage. But if you’re the sole breadwinner, “that income is more vulnerable,” D’Andrea said. “Six months would be the ideal minimum liquidity reserve in this situation.”
Your income is inconsistent
If you work seasonally, on commission, a contract or freelance basis, or rely on bonuses for compensation, your income likely fluctuates month to month. It can be harder to predict your income and expenses. In this case, it’s a good idea to have a bit more set aside for emergencies. “Some of those individuals may feel more comfortable with six to 12 months of accessible funds,” D’Andrea said.
“The benefits of self-employment are vast and for another letter, but one of the benefits that are typically lacking are, well, benefits,” D’Andrea said. Working for yourself can make it more difficult and expensive to get the same benefits you would under a group plan, such as disability insurance and life insurance. “Also, you are likely to be responsible for other people’s income and may have to forgo paying yourself to pay staff.” For these reasons, D’Andrea recommends setting aside at least six months’ worth of living expenses so you have more flexibility and peace of mind while running your business.
How to get your emergency fund started
Building up an emergency fund from scratch might seem overwhelming at first. But if you focus on taking small steps, your fund will grow over time. After all, the longer you wait, the longer it will take. Here are a few things you can do to get started right away.
1. Follow a zero-based budget. According to Cruze, the easiest way to build up your emergency fund is by having a solid budget. “I recommend doing a zero-based budget, which means that your income minus your expenses equals zero each month,” she said. “Tell every dollar where to go.” By following this method, you’ll quickly see the areas where you’re overspending and could be doing something better with your money, like building an emergency fund. Cruze uses an app called EveryDollar to manage her budget; you can also try others such as Mint, YNAB or Mvelopes.
2. Increase your income. There’s only so much scrimping and saving you can do, but there’s no cap on how much you can increase your income. “Maybe you work a little overtime, pick up a part-time job or start a side-hustle,” Cruze said. “There are probably household items you don’t need that you could sell for some quick cash, too!” Remember that you don’t have to hustle forever. The situation can be temporary as you work to build up your fund.
3. Create a separate account. Cruze said it’s important to separate your emergency fund from your day-to-day checking and savings accounts. “You’ll be tempted to spend it for non-emergencies and take a little bit here and there.” Instead, she recommends setting up a completely different savings or money market account. “That way it’s accessible, but not so accessible that you’re tempted to dip into it when you don’t really need to,” Cruze said.
4. Automate your savings. The physical act of transferring money from your checking account to your emergency savings account can be mentally painful. So painful that you might be tempted to skip a transfer when money is looking tight. But if you automate the process, either by setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck to your savings or an automatic transfer between bank accounts, you won’t have to watch it happen. In fact, you may not even miss the money.