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

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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Peak Alert

Peak Energy Alert

I love the fact that our home has hot-water heat. As a person with allergies, I am not overwhelmed in the summer or winter when the central-air or furnace blows the collected dust out of the vents. But with hot water heat, there’s no option for central air conditioning; I would have to say that this week I would give almost anything to have central air! As I write this during a heatwave, it is expected to hit 95 degrees today with a feel-like temperature of 103 degrees. I can only imagine how widespread the brown-outs will be with everyone retreating to their air-conditioned homes and places of employment.

So, what about those brown-outs? In visiting with my co-worker (who has central-air) I have learned that our local energy-provider has a program called Appliance Cycling. This program will not only reduce the amount of energy used by the homeowner, which will reduce their cost…but the homeowner will also be compensated with a credit of $8/month for participating in the program.

When you sign up for the program, a technician will come to your home and install a small radio-control switch on or near your outdoor central air conditioner at no cost to the homeowner. 

If the demand for electricity escalates to a critical point, a “system emergency” or “peak alert” is announced, and a radio signal is sent to activate the switch on your air conditioner. Your outdoor cooling unit will then cycle off while the furnace fans continue to circulate the cooler, drier air already in your home. 

The program runs from May to September and the cycling events typically occur Monday through Friday from 1 PM – 7 PM…never on weekends or holidays.

My co-worker says she notices a slight difference in the temperature and humidity in their home during peak alerts but nothing that a box fan or ceiling fan can’t make up for. Do you have a similar program in your area?  What has been your experience? As for me…I think I will plan on supper at a restaurant!

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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To Buy or Borrow?

My family just returned from a camping trip in the mountains of Montana. Our decision as to where to camp was determined by the fact that not all campsites would allow soft-sided tents and campers because of bears living in the area. We drove up into the mountains to picnic, visit sites and see the wildlife…including bears. Those that were serious hikers wore bells so bears would hear them coming; as to not surprise the bears that might be along the path. Hikers also carry BEAR SPRAY…a kind of “pepper spray” to temporarily blind a bear, giving a hiker a chance to escape, if they did come upon a bear. This product was sold in all the shops for more than $50 for a small spray can…OR you could rent a can. If you were a visitor to the area, and would not have use for the spray once you returned home, renting was a good option. At $10 per day rental, you would have to spend more than 5 days hiking to justify buying the can of spray.

Our son almost purchased a family pass at their local pool because that is what they had always done. At the last minute, he changed his mind and decided to buy a couple of punch cards. They have hired a high school girl to watch their oldest child for the summer, and wanted their daughter and the sitter to be able to spend time at the pool. The family pass would not cover a caregiver…only family members. When he added up the number of times they visited the pool, divided that into the cost of the family pass, it made more financial sense to buy the punch passes instead of the family season ticket.

I can think of many times where a decision to rent or borrow was a better financial choice…like borrowing an expensive tool that you would only use once or twice. I can also think of times where I mindlessly purchased something rather than looking for a more economical way of doing something…just because it was easier, faster or just “the way I’ve always done something.” How about you? What are some ways you have accomplished something without actually buying something?

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Less is More

Woman holding clothes on a hangerIn December, the calendar may say it is winter, but I am never in the mood to do wintery things (decorate, bake and eat comfort foods, etc.) until there is snow on the ground. The same is true for Spring which officially began March 21…almost 2 months ago. The last of our snow recently left and the grass finally turned green and I am now just finding myself in the mood to do spring cleaning…which includes digging out summer clothes and putting away the sweaters.

As I put winter clothes away, I discovered that most of the items in my closet are worn year round…like a short-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, a black dress, a white long-sleeved blouse, a black blazer and dress slacks.

The CAPSULE wardrobe, a term coined in the 70’s, refers to a collection of a few essential, quality items of clothing that never go out of fashion, do not wear out, and can be paired with seasonal pieces. The key is to make sure your essentials are well-made and fit properly…basics that you can wear daily and from which you can create different looks.

If done correctly, a capsule wardrobe should reduce the number of items in your closet — and thus, reduce the amount of time you spend organizing and cleaning out your closet and donating unused items.

Because it is now okay to wear white after Labor Day, to mix prints, and to wear navy and black together, you will find the items in your capsule can remain in your closet all year, eliminating the time-consuming task of removing, organizing and properly storing out-of-season items.  Reducing the number of pieces in your closet also makes it possible to keep all your clothes in your closet, year round.

If these aren’t reasons enough to create a capsule wardrobe, consider the environmental ramifications of cheap, “disposable” clothing. Poor quality clothes lose shape and look tired after being worn only a dozen times. According to a 2017 report we are wearing pieces fewer times before disposing of them. The study says that more than half of all lesser-quality clothes are disposed of in under a year. It also noted that less than one percent of the materials used are recycled; as a result, “one garbage truck full of textiles is land-filled or burned every second.”

Buying high-quality, well-made pieces of clothing that will last years instead of months is not only far better for the environment, but it’s also better for your pocketbook in the long term. And, the capsule wardrobe has great potential to reduce the amount of time spent organizing, storing and cleaning out your closets.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Care Co-op For Aging Parent

Financing Aging

A couple of years ago, I shared about my experiences as an adult child with an aging parent who came to live with me. One of the first things I did when I received word that dad would be coming was to look for support or companionship for him. Early on, he was able to be left home alone during the day (as my husband and I both worked) but I didn’t want his life in my home to be a lonely existence. My neighbor was on a similar journey; her father had also come to live with her. Dad and the neighbor became friends and most days, would walk downtown together for coffee. I appreciated the fact that the neighbor could make sure Dad found his way home. How lucky I was to know of my neighbor’s similar situation and their willingness to work together in providing quality of life for our parents.

My daughter, who lives in Boise, is very tech savvy. I enjoy hearing about her use of technology to solve problems or streamline tasks. To coordinate volunteers or donations of food for school celebrations, they use an online app called SignUpGenius.com. Accounts are free and reminders can be sent from the online app. Her close-knit group of friends uses another online app called MealTrain.com. When someone from their group has a baby, surgery, death in the family or other cause for support, the delivery of meals is organized utilizing this app.

While each of these apps was designed for a specific task, creative minds have found other ways to use them.  For example, one of my daughter’s friends had a parent going through chemo. The Mealtrain.com app was used to help organize rides and moral support (company during treatments).

Another app that came to my attention was called Komae.com. This app is used for community co-ops…babysitting coops or carpooling or…use your imagination. Membership in these co-ops begins with an application process to ensure new members are a good fit for the group and to clearly communicate the expectations of the group. In the case of childcare, the app records “deposits” of time you provide caring for the children of others, and makes “withdrawals” of time when your children are cared for by others. This ensures there is a balance of give and take.

What instantly came to mind for me was the growing number of adult-children-with-aging-parents in Iowa. What if adult children caring for aging parents formed a co-op where adult care could be provided for the members by the members in the co-op. Considering the huge expense associated with care for the aging, and the fact that there is a shortage of service providers, especially in rural parts of the state, this app would be very useful. Near the end of Dad’s stay with me, this app would have come in handy as I struggled finding care providers that were willing to come to my house and sit with dad. What solutions have you found addressing the issues of caring for an aging parent?

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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E-cigarettes

It’s strange to hear marketing promoting the use of e-cigarettes. Legislation has restricted  campaigns promoting tobacco products for many years.  A frequently-used e-cig marketing approach targets smokers who feel their habit has forced them into self-imposed  isolation to hide their habit or protect others from second hand exposure.  Web sites declare the product is for individuals who already smoke, offering them a safer alternative.

Nicotine is an addictive substance and e-cigarette ads or commercials clearly state its presence. E-cigarette use often leads to use of tobacco products. Among individuals who smoke, nine out of ten started as teens.

A 2016 report by the Surgeon Generals Office pointed to data indicating a rapid increase in the use of e-cigarettes (also known as “vaping”) by teens and young adults.  In research designed to measure whether youth understand the risks, the findings clearly indicate that teens and young adults view e-cigarettes as safe. Flavor options are attractive, and natural curiosity are reasons given to try e-cigarettes.

Tobacco product use in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe for adolescents. Lifelong addiction is costly, not only in health terms, but also in financial terms. E-cigarette pods, equivalent to a pack of cigarettes, cost $4-$5. The device to use the pods is around $35.  When a substance is addictive, as e-cigarettes are, users will typically increase consumption over time. This is a bonus for the companies selling the products. Even with low use (2 pods a week), the habit will cost $500 a year.

Running a calculation of what $500 a year could become if it was saved provides an argument against vaping.  A modest $50 deposited monthly into an account earning 3% a year with annual compounding (I’m being intentionally conservative here…) from the age of 16 until age 65 would result in  cash assets of $65,000.  Unfortunately it’s hard to make this example exotic enough to hook individuals on saving instead of vaping.

 

 

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Defining Unexpected Expenses

Life is full of surprises and events that sometimes shatter our daily routines and our finances. 

Conventional wisdom says that the money in an emergency fund would be earmarked for “unexpected expenses.”  That is true.  However, let’s think about what expenses actually are (and are not) unexpected.

Expenses that are not unexpected: monthly and annual bills

  • Regular annual or semi-annual expenses are not unexpected: these include property taxes, car insurance premiums,  annual life insurance premium, eye exams and other once-a year expenses.  You can plan and prepare for these expenses by setting aside a fixed amount each month.  Since you know these expenses are coming, they cannot truly be considered emergencies.
  • Occasional maintenance or repairs, such as a leaky roof or a dishwasher breakdown are not fully unexpected. either.  The same is true for other ordinary home repair, care repair, and moderate medical bills.  You may not know exactly what expenses will come up, but if you have a body, a car or a home, you need to expect to spend money on maintaining them. Setting aside money each month will build a fund for home repair and maintenance, car repairs, and  ordinary medical bills.

What expenses are truly unexpected?

An emergency fund is intended for expenses that fall outside the categories of “annual bills” or ordinary maintenance of home, car, and health.  Unexpected expenses are events like losing your job or being struck by a massive, out-of-the-norm health-related bill beyond what insurance will cover.  Emergency funds are designed for expenses that are highly unusual, not for common occurrences.

Bottom Line: It is possible that the savings account you were labeling as an “Emergency Fund” is actually your “Yearly Expense and Maintenance Fund.” That’s a good fund to have. But perhaps you also need an emergency fund.

 

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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A Book to Read

How’s your New Year’s resolution going?  Maybe I can help. Add a short term goal to read one book about money or personal management by the end of January and use the content to improve your original plan to improve your well being. Here are few I recommend:

The Millionaire Next Door identifies seven common traits that show up again and again among those who have accumulated wealth. If your resolution was to slow down the purchase of stuff, adopt a minimalist approach to life, or start recycling/reusing what you have, the book could give additional reasons to stick with it.  Authors are  Thomas Stanley, PhD and William Danko, PhD

 

 

Loaded by Sarah Newcomb, PhD, introduces you to behavioral finance. The book explains how our experiences with money have a psychological basis and can often run counter to what we’d like to accomplish. She explains that money is just a tool and how we use it is entirely a matter of personal choice.  The book offers advice about overcoming negative behaviors, so if you are concerned that you might fail to follow through with plans to change your use of money in 2019, this book offers tips that could help you change your goal and make it more achievable.

 

Charles Duhigg is a business reporter. The Power of Habit describes why habits exist and how they can be changed. Your resolution might be failing because you haven’t really examined why you are repeating the same behavior loop over and over again. Taking advantage of his tips to find your weak links and embrace change could lead to success.

 

Finally if you use this suggestion and read one book before the end of January, don’t forget to celebrate.   One short term resolution accomplished!!!

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Auto-Pilot vs Mindlessness

Two cardboard boxes delivered to a residential home wait outside a black metal front door on a brick patio, Midwest, USA

We have frequently talked about strategies for making good financial habits. One strategies is to “make it automatic”. For example, if I want to save 10% of my monthly paycheck, I would have a greater chance of making it happen if I were to set it up with my employer. Each month, a portion of my paycheck could be auto-deposited in a savings account while the remainder of my check would go directly into my checking account. Basically, I made the decision once and it happens monthly without me having to remember to transfer money from my checking account to my savings account.

For the last couple of years, I have done a lot of on-line purchasing, including a large portion of my gifts and a few household consumables. Within the online shopping platform, I have always compared prices, companies, and options. I would also check Consumer Reports to compare brands and quality reviews. I considered myself to be a good shopper. When this online platform first arrived on the scene, I was diligent in comparing prices with our local stores to make sure I am getting the best deal.  In recent months, though, I haven’t done much comparison shopping;  …I just assumed…which I am sure is what online “stores” were counting on.  They hook consumers with the price, convenience & variety, and then later, when the prices rise, we either don’t notice or don’t care because we are hooked on the convenience.

This past week, a new study revealed that when compared to local store chains, this online shopping platform (the one I had gotten used to using) was not always a less expensive way to shop. This is NOT what I wanted to hear! I LOVE the convenience and the speed at which things arrive at my home. I WANT (but I don’t need) more brands to pick from.

So I have a mixed scorecard as an effective consumer. On the plus side, I have been effective in putting my savings account deposits on auto-pilot; but on the minus side, my desire to save money while shopping has slipped as it became a bit mindless. Now the I have to decide if the convenience is worth a slightly higher price.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Five Minutes to Make Your Home Healthier

With the upcoming time change (from Daylight Savings back to Standard Time), take a few minutes this week to make your home healthier for your family.  Here are six tips:

  1. Test your smoke alarm and replace the battery. Using smoke alarms in your home cuts your risk of dying in a fire in half.
  2. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds – enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Each year about 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated or improperly prepared foods.
  3. Make your home smoke free. Never let anyone smoke anywhere in or near your home. Parents are responsible for 90% of their children’s exposure to smoke.
  4. Program the number for poison control into your cell phone: 1-800-222-1222.  If you use a land line, post the number near the phone.  Each day in the United States over 300 children (ages 0-19) are in emergency rooms for poisonings.
  5. Do a 3-minute “clean sweep” Pick one small area of your home- like your junk drawer or stairs and take 3 minutes to sort the items. Get rid of what you do not need. Clutter can collect dust, mold, and other allergens and gives pests a place to hide.  If clutter is on the floor or stairs, it can cause you to trip and fall.
  6. Check your locks. Make sure locks function correctly and that a child can operate them in an emergency.

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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