Who needs an emergency fund?

jar of coins

If you’ve gotten along for years without any money in the bank, you might scoff when people suggest that establishing an emergency fund should be a priority. Perhaps you respond with: “I always find a way to deal with emergencies, even without money in the bank!” You are not alone. A recent survey found that 4 in 10 Americans could not cover an unexpected expense of $400; that might be the cost of replacing an appliance that died or an unexpected car repair.

If you’re one of those 4 in 10 Americans, you’ve probably paid a price for your lack of savings. 

  • Perhaps your landlord or the utility company has lost patience with you, and will no longer give you any leeway; they may even threaten to evict you or disconnect your services. 
  • Perhaps family members avoid your calls because they’re tired of you asking for money. 
  • Perhaps you pay tens (or hundreds) of dollars a month in late fees and interest because of unexpected expenses have put you behind on bills.

Here’s the hard truth: living with no savings creates real problems for individuals and families. Savings is essential for financial stability. It can also reduce family arguments and help you sleep better at night.

So the question is this: HOW does a person build up savings? There are lots of “tricks” people use to save money. For example, they may save all their change, or every $5 bill they receive in change; or they may have a “frugal week” each month, in which they give up extras like coffee, soda or eating out, and then save the money they would’ve spent on those things. I love hearing about the variety of strategies people use!

When it comes right down to it, though, there are two core elements of any savings plan:

  1. You must treat your savings like a bill, and pay yourself FIRST. If you wait, planning to save “whatever is left,” the saving probably won’t happen. Make your spending plan for the month (or the week), figure out how much you can save, and do it first. That is the best way to succeed with saving.
  2. You MUST be saving because it is important to YOU. If you try to save just because I told you that you should, it won’t work. You have to want to save in order to be willing to make the changes required for saving. So think about WHY you want to have some savings built up. Maybe you’ll think back to the stress and drama you experienced the last time an unexpected expense occurred; avoiding that stress might be your reason. Setting an example for your children might be your reason. Keeping the utility company happy might be your reason. Note: It helps if your partner and family also agree that saving is important.

How much should you have in your emergency fund? That’s up to you, but I encourage you to set a realistic goal for the short term. If money is tight, it might take a couple of years to get to $1,000. You need some success sooner than that, so a goal of $100 might be a good place to start. When you reach that goal, you can celebrate! (And then start toward $200).

How have you succeeded with saving? We’d love to hear your stories!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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