No doubt, it’s important to save money for a rainy day. But once you’ve stashed some cash away, it can be hard to know what exactly qualifies as a rainy day and gives you license to dip into your savings.
Most of us would agree that being hit with a large, unexpected expense like a medical bill or car repair would be a good reason to tap an emergency fund. But what about a great deal on a used car, which you could really use? Or the opportunity to replace your old fridge at a steep discount? Do those qualify as reasons to dip into your savings?
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What Is an Emergency Fund?
An emergency fund is essentially a savings fund earmarked for emergency expenses—aka unplanned expenses or financial emergencies. A major home repair, like a leaking roof, is an example of an unplanned expense that needs to be dealt with right away. Losing a job is an example of a financial emergency that can cause a lot of stress if you don’t have an emergency fund to dip into to pay for necessities and bills.
If someone doesn’t have an emergency fund and experiences financial difficulties, they may turn to high-interest debt. For instance, they may use credit cards or personal loans to cover expenses, which can lead to struggling to pay down the debt that’s left in its wake.
You may be wondering just how much to keep in an emergency fund. Financial experts often recommend having at least three to six months’ worth of basic living expenses set aside in an emergency fund. That can be a lofty goal considering that one recent study showed that about half of all Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency scenario. It’s wise not to be caught short and to prioritize saving an emergency fund.
What Are Things to Avoid Spending My Emergency Savings on?
Let’s say you’ve done a good job creating an emergency fund but aren’t sure when to dip into it. The question is: What types of expenses are valid uses of your emergency fund savings? Here are examples of when not to access that stash of cash.
- Fun purchases. If you want but don’t need something and it isn’t in your budget, don’t pull from your emergency fund. Entertainment, dining out, tech gadgets, and designer clothes (even if on final sale) are all examples of wants, not needs. Set aside some funds for such buys if you like, but don’t even think about depleting your emergency fund savings. It’s always best to ask questions before making an impulse buy. Spend time thinking about a purchase carefully before making it. You may find that new bike you thought you desperately needed doesn’t seem so vital a day or two later.
- Vacations. It’s very tempting to get away for a little R&R when things get tough, but a vacation isn’t a worthwhile emergency fund expense. If you want to have that week at the beach, go ahead and create a savings plan and a separate savings account to make it a reality. But it’s not a wise spending strategy to pull the money out of your rainy day funds.
- Debt. Paying down debt is a great goal. It’s also a great use of any extra money you may have, but not at the expense of draining an emergency fund completely. If you’re chipping away at debt, keep at it but continue to keep some emergency funds aside. If you lose your job or an unexpected expense hits and you don’t have emergency savings, you might end up turning to more expensive forms of credit as a result. This underscores the importance of having an emergency fund.
How to Know When an Expense Counts as an Emergency
Now, it’s time to consider when to go ahead and use that money you saved for a rainy day. If you’re on the fence about whether an expense counts as an emergency, ask yourself the following six questions to determine if you should tap your emergency funds. Your answers will provide guidance on whether to access your savings.
1. Is This Absolutely Necessary?
There’s a difference between things we want and things we need. If someone starts a new job and they have to buy a uniform for it, that’s a necessity. If, however, someone starts a new job and simply wants some new outfits, that isn’t a necessity. Similarly, pining for a new stove with a commercial-style cooktop is a want; replacing a stove that conked out is a necessity.
2. Is This the Only Way That I Can Pay for This?
Before pulling money from this account, it can be helpful to ask, is the emergency fund the only source of money that can cover this expense? Would it be possible to wait a week until payday and to use that income instead? Gift cards, coupons, and sale discount codes can make it easier to pay for purchases without draining your emergency fund.
Your goal here is to determine the lowest possible price for a purchase and then seeing if there’s another (non emergency fund) way to pay for it.
3. Is This an Unexpected Event?
Emergency funds can be a great way to cover unexpected and necessary purchases, but they aren’t supposed to replace poor planning. If you know a major expense is coming your way (say, the hot-water heater is coming to the end of its lifespan), it’s best to save for it instead of reaching into your rainy day fund.
4. Is This Urgent or Can It Wait?
Even if an expense feels like something that must be dealt with at the moment, there’s a good chance it can be put off. Ask yourself if it can wait until you have saved enough money to pay for it without accessing emergency funds.
5. How Much of My Emergency Fund Will I Be Using?
An emergency fund exists as a safety valve when you unexpectedly need funds. However, before pulling money from an emergency fund, it can be helpful to consider just how much of the emergency fund the purchase will take up. If it’s going to drain the fund and the purchase can wait, it’s likely best to wait. Or maybe you can buy a less pricey version of the item in question.
6. How Long Will It Take To Rebuild My Savings?
If the purchase will take up a big chunk of the emergency savings fund, it can be a good idea to map out how long it will take to rebuild those savings. If it will take more than six months, then it may be best to hold off on making that purchase until the emergency fund is more substantial. It may be better to cut back on spending to cover this expense now without having to touch emergency savings.
Of course, sometimes an emergency is really an emergency, and you can’t hold off. If you are hit with, say, a major medical bill, you may have to use up that emergency fund and work hard to rebuild it later. But it will have done its job and seen you through a tough time.
Before pulling savings from an emergency fund, it’s important to determine if the purchase really is imperative. When deciding what to use emergency funds for, it’s helpful to focus on necessities, not wants. Sometimes, truly urgent needs crop up, and you’ll be glad you had that money saved. Other times, you may realize that the expense that seemed so desperately needed one minute is really not so vital the next. Emergency savings can be a real lifesaver, so you want to protect those funds and make sure you use them properly.
What should you ask yourself before using your emergency fund?
Before you pull money from an emergency fund, ask yourself questions like, Is this expense absolutely necessary? Is this the only way I can pay for it? Is it urgent or can it wait? How much of my emergency savings will I be using up? The answers should guide you towards whether or not it’s worth tapping into your emergency fund.
What should you spend your emergency fund on?
What constitutes an emergency purchase for one person may look quite different for another. That being said, it’s usually best to only spend emergency fund savings on necessities, not wants. These financial emergencies are usually unexpected and may include home repairs, medical bills, and car repairs—or day-to-day expenses after, say, a job loss.
What should you not put in your emergency fund?
While it’s a good idea to put extra money towards an emergency fund instead of spending it on frivolities, there are some types of savings it’s best to leave out of an emergency fund. For example, it’s not a good idea to use 401(k) contributions or other retirement savings to build an emergency fund. Saving for retirement is super important and employers often match 401(k) contributions, which is basically like getting free money. It’s may be wise to focus on maxing out retirement contributions before building an emergency fund.
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