Should I have an emergency fund?


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A hospital bill in the thousands. A vet invoice for hundreds. A car repair for more than you make in a month. When faced with an emergency, it can compound the problem to try to figure out how to pay for the unexpected expenses on top of an already stressful situation.

If you find yourself questioning, “Should I have an emergency fund?” the answer should be a resounding yes, absolutely! But where to begin? Forty percent of Americans say they are unable to afford even a $400 emergency expense.

Conventional wisdom claims you should have enough money saved in an emergency fund to cover at least three to six months of expenses, depending on your personal financial situation.

But with looming student debt, credit card payments or other big financial burdens, it can be hard to imagine saving while keeping up with all of your bills and expenses. Emergency funds are great for major unexpected expenses, but preparing for the unexpected still takes time and planning.

Related: Should you invest your emergency fund?

Beefing up Your Budget

One of the first ways you can start saving up for an emergency fund is to evaluate your current spending habits and create a budget if you don’t already have one. Take a look at where there is fat to trim, meaning extra expenses you can minimize or eliminate.

Start with a simple spreadsheet, which should help you break down your spending to see your total income, plus what you spend on necessities like rent, loan payments and groceries; discretionary spending like shopping or entertainment; and long-term goals, including emergency fund savings or retirement.

For a two-income household, you could aim to have three months of expenses in your basic emergency fund, with six months for a one-income household.

In a recent survey, 67% of millennials report having a savings goal and sticking with it every month, or most months. Your overall savings goal might actually include more than just saving for an emergency fund.

One common tactic for an easy budget to stick to is to put 20% of your take-home income toward financial goals, such as savings, and then make part of that just for your emergency fund.

You might want to look at your current bills and deadlines and see what you can adjust to make the most sense with your paydays. If you get paid every two weeks, but all of your bills are due at the end of the month, maybe you find you are dipping into those savings to pay everything on time.

You could try spreading out your bills throughout the month or grouped closer to your paychecks, so you can better budget your money throughout the year. Everybody’s financial situation is different, so figure out what works for you — and stick with it.

Having an emergency fund means you’ll be better prepared to cover any urgent, unplanned financial crises, like a high medical bill or costly car repair, without ruining your normal budgeted living expenses. With money set aside, you’ll be able to stress less and avoid more costly solutions like credit cards or personal loans to fund any emergencies.

However, one possible disadvantage to trying to build up your emergency fund is that you might feel like that money should be going toward paying off debt, like student loans or credit cards, before storing away funds in savings. But it’s important to know good debt from bad in this case.

A mortgage or student loan is generally considered good debt, while a high-interest credit card can be worse for your overall credit score and financial health. If you are weighing paying off debt versus building up your emergency fund, you might consider this order to figure out your top priorities:

  • Make sure you have enough money in the bank to pay any recurring bills.
  • Build a safety net equal to one month of your basic expenses
  • Match any contributions your employer makes for retirement contributions.
  • Pay off bad debt, like high-interest credit cards.
  • Build up your emergency fund.

Once you have three to six months’ worth of expenses saved up for your emergency fund, you can refocus your budget on other long-term goals.

Putting Savings on Auto Drive

If you already use direct deposit, you’ve already got a possible solution to help you fund an emergency reserve. You can set up a recurring transfer with your bank, or split your direct deposit into a checking and a savings account, in order to make savings automatic.

If you don’t notice the money sitting in your account in the first place, it might be less tempting to spend it or move it back out of savings.

So, how much can you afford to automatically transfer? The Consumer Federation of America says that an emergency savings fund should consist of at least $500. They recommend using a savings account that you do not have easy access to, perhaps at a different bank than your current home bank.

You can kick-start your emergency fund by using a cash windfall like a tax refund, work bonus or birthday check. Aim first to get to $500, then $1,000, then one month of essential living expenses, and work your way up from there.

You probably aren’t going to generate three or six months worth of extra money all at once. Automating your savings might help, whether you choose to have a certain amount from your paycheck transferred into a separate savings account, or set up recurring transfers from checking to savings with your bank.

Then, when you do reach a comfortable number in your emergency fund, you can redirect those automated savings toward other financial goals, like paying off debt or funding retirement.

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