Q&A: Emergency fund: How big?

Dear Liz: You recently advised a teacher who was inquiring about paying down student debt. You suggested among other things to “have a substantial emergency fund before you make extra payments on education debt (or a mortgage, for that matter). ‘Substantial’ means having three to six months’ worth of expenses saved. If your job is anything less than rock solid, you may want to set aside even more.” Granted, this is in the context of the student debt question, but is that emergency fund advice still valid in light of studies showing the liquidity needs of lower-income households to be much lower?

Answer: The usual advice about emergency funds is often unrealistic and sometimes absurd for most low- or even moderate-income households.

The advice is usually given by financial planners who typically work with higher-income clients. The higher your income, the more likely it is that you have the free cash flow to quickly build a large emergency fund.

An analysis in the New York Times found that a household with income over $200,000 would need about two months to save one month’s worth of expenses. A household with income of $70,000 to $99,999 would need seven to eight months to save one month’s worth. A typical household with two or more people and income of $50,000 to $69,999 would need more than two years to save a single month’s worth of expenses.

As you’ve noted, though, various studies have found that much smaller emergency funds can help households avoid catastrophe.

A 2015 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found the most expensive financial shock suffered by the typical household amounted to $2,000. But as little as $250 can reduce the odds that a low-income household will suffer serious financial setbacks such as eviction, according to a 2016 Urban Institute study.

A three-month emergency fund could be a long-term goal, but it’s not something that should be prioritized over more important tasks such as saving for retirement or paying off high-rate debt.

Such a fund should be a priority, however, over paying off lower-rate, potentially tax-deductible debt. That’s especially true when you’d be making extra payments on student loans. Paying down credit cards can free up additional credit to be used in an emergency, but payments sent to student loan lenders are gone for good.

Q&A: A young mother died in a car accident. Can her widower get survivor benefits?

Dear Liz: My grandson’s wife, 22, was killed in a motor vehicle accident just after her birthday. My grandson, 26, was left with a 2-year-old and 9-month-old. Due to COVID-19, he was staying home with the children, and she was working at a fast-food restaurant. We thought there would be Social Security survivor benefits, but he has been denied because she did not have 10 quarters of payroll. Is there an appeal for this denial? She was too young to have the required quarters.

Answer: Given her age, the family could be out of luck if she only recently started working. But there is a special rule that applies if she was working at jobs that paid into Social Security for at least a year and a half before her death.

With survivor benefits, the length of time someone needs to work typically varies according to age. To generate survivor benefits, the number of years you need to work at a job that pays into Social Security is — at most — 10 years. Each quarter of work typically generates one credit, and no more than 40 credits are needed. The younger someone is when they die, the fewer credits are needed. People, however, generally need at least six credits, and only credits earned after someone turns 22 count toward the total.

But there’s an exception. Survivor benefits can be paid if the worker earned at least six credits in the three years before death. So if your grandson’s wife worked at least 18 months before her terribly premature death, survivor benefits could be paid to her minor children and to the surviving spouse who is caring for them, said William Meyer, chief executive of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategy site.

The benefits would be based on her earnings history, so the amounts are unlikely to be substantial, Meyer noted. Still, something would be better than nothing.

All Social Security decisions can be appealed. If your grandson already filed an application and was denied, the denial letter would explain his appeal rights, Meyer said. If he just received a verbal denial, he should go ahead and file a formal application to start the process. If his wife had earnings that might not yet have been reported, he can provide her last pay stubs or W-2 forms when filing the application.

“With there being a concern about her having enough qualifying quarters, as well as low earnings, that could be pretty important,” Meyer said.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to finally tackle tough money tasks. Also in the news: It’s now easier than ever for your boss to pay your student loans, 6 Black financial pros to follow in 2021, and 3 budgets apps for couples who want to align on money.

How to Finally Tackle Tough Money Tasks
Completing financial tasks can be intimidating, but breaking big goals into small, manageable actions makes it easier to whittle down your to-do list.

It’s Now Easier Than Ever for Your Boss to Pay Your Student Loans
Your employer can pay down your student loans, tax-free.

6 Black Financial Pros to Follow in 2021
Financial experts offer their thoughts about the banking industry, and new money goals after 2020.

3 Budget Apps for Couples Who Want to Align on Money
Finding the romance in finance.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What gig workers need to know about taxes. Also in the news: 5 credit card red flags to avoid, why financial advisors of color matter, and how to prevent stolen tax returns.

What Gig Workers Need to Know About Taxes
Protect yourself from tax surprises.

5 Credit Card Red Flags to Avoid
Being aware of these credit card warning signs can help you weed out the bad options and potentially save you money.

Why Financial Advisors of Color Matter
Financial advisors of color can help diverse clients gain trust in the financial industry, and ultimately help shrink the wealth gap.

Prevent Stolen Tax Returns With This IRS Tool
Protect your information.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The pros and cons of debt consolidation. Also in the news: The basics of travel cancellation refunds and vouchers, cheaper ways to access your credit line, and 5 considerations before becoming a digital nomad.

The Pros and Cons of Debt Consolidation
Consolidating may be a good idea if you can qualify for a low interest rate, make payments on-time and stay out of debt in the future.

Travel Cancellation Refunds and Vouchers: The Basics
Getting a refund depends on the type of travel booking you made and how far in advance you canceled.

Card Issuers Are Offering Cheaper Ways to Access Your Credit Line
Costly cash advances are no longer the only option for tapping into your available credit. But there are drawbacks to be aware of.

5 Considerations Before Becoming a Digital Nomad in the U.S.

What gig workers need to know about taxes

If you became a gig worker during the pandemic, beware: Your taxes just got more complicated.

Gig work — Uber driving, Instacart shopping, Amazon Flex delivery and so on — is on-demand, freelance work that’s typically taxed as self-employment. Instead of having an employer withhold money from your paycheck, you’re an independent contractor who is expected to pay taxes on your gig income as you earn it. You’ll also owe a larger share of your pay to Social Security and Medicare taxes.

On the plus side, you may have more opportunities to deduct your expenses and save for retirement than you do as a W-2 employee.

In my latest for the Associated Press, unraveling the mysteries of gig worker taxes.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to get your savings resolution back on track. Also in the news: Where to look if your small business can’t get a PPP loan, breaking down the tax implications of PPP loans, and when you might get your $1,400 relief check.

Broke Your Savings Resolution? How to Get Back on Track
It’s not too late.

Where to Look If Your Small Business Can’t Get a PPP Loan
Small-business owners can turn to other SBA loans and grants from state and local agencies and organizations.

Breaking Down the Tax Implications of PPP Loans
Expenses paid with a PPP loan can be deducted on your taxes, even if that loan is forgiven.

When Will You Get Your $1,400 Relief Check?
It’s going to be a few weeks.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Discriminatory practices leave Black Americans with less life insurance. Also in the news: How to keep your student loan payment at $0, a new episode of the Smart Money podcast on the lessons learned from Gamestop, and how to protect yourself from gas pump skimmers.

Discriminatory Practices Leave Black Americans With Less Life Insurance
Years of discrimination have led to a life insurance coverage gap between Black and white Americans.

How to Keep Your Student Loan Payment at $0
Take a look at income-driven repayment.

Smart Money Podcast: GameStop Lessons and Talking About Money With Your Partner
Understanding what the heck happened with Gamestop.

How to Protect Yourself From Gas Pump Skimmers
Scammers never rest.

Q&A: Age minimum for survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 53 and Social Security is giving me a hold time for my widow support. What should I do?

Answer: The only thing you probably can do is wait.

Survivor benefits are normally only available once you turn 60. You can start as early as age 50 if you are disabled or at any age if you are caring for the deceased worker’s minor children.

Q&A: Dementia and financial accounts

Dear Liz: You recently discussed the importance of adding spouses to financial accounts before one of them dies to make it easier for the surviving spouse. I wholeheartedly agree. I would add that this needs to be done sooner rather than later. If one of the spouses is diagnosed with dementia, the bank will likely not make changes to accounts. People have to be able to understand what they are signing.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Another important task is to create powers of attorney for healthcare and finances. These allow someone else to make decisions for you if you are incapacitated. Someone in the early stages of dementia could sign such a document if they understand what it is, but otherwise the family might have to go to court to get a conservatorship, which can be an expensive process.