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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Calibrate your emergency fund to a crisis-prone world. Also in the news: How to give stock as a gift, what you need to know about Joe Biden’s student loan plan, and the pros and cons of Buy Now, Pay Later retail loans.

Calibrate Your Emergency Fund to a Crisis-Prone World
Financial advisors are urging clients to consider expanding their emergency funds.

How to Give Stock as a Gift (And Why Tax Pros Like The Idea)
Is it better to give than to receive? Certainly. But giving while receiving a tax benefit is pretty good, too.

Will student loans be forgiven in 2021? Here’s what you should know
What you need to know about Joe Biden’s student loan plan.

Are ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ Retail Loans a Good Deal?
The pros and cons.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Should you use your emergency fund during the COVID-19 outbreak? Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on the Coronavirus relief checks, why you should join a money community for financial support, and 13 tips to help protect your online financial information.

Should You Use Your Emergency Fund During the COVID-19 Outbreak?
Don’t be afraid to use it when you actually need it.

SmartMoney Podcast: ‘Where’s My Coronavirus Relief Check?’
Finding your $1200.

Why you should join a money community for financial support
Strength in numbers.

13 Tips To Help Protect Your Online Financial Information
Cybercrime never rests.

How employers help workers save for rainy days

Everyone needs a rainy-day fund — your financial health depends on it. Your employer could help you build one.

Many companies offer 401(k)s and other retirement plans, but until recently few had programs to promote short-term savings. That’s starting to change, as employers experiment with matching funds, payroll deductions and other methods to encourage workers to build emergency funds.

In my latest for the Associated Press, see why employer-sponsored emergency savings accounts are beginning to gain traction.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Can your employer cure your money woes? Also in the news: 10 lessons from the bull market’s 10-year anniversary, how to get money if you don’t have an emergency fund, and the $1.4 billion in refunds left on the table by taxpayers.

Can Your Employer Cure Your Money Woes?
Targeting debt-related stress through employee benefits.

10 Lessons From the Bull Market’s 10-Year Anniversary
It’s the longest bull market in history.

How to Get Money If You Don’t Have an Emergency Fund
But you really should have an emergency fund.

Taxpayers are leaving $1.4 billion in tax refunds on the table
Refunds owed from 2015.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t freak out about an emergency fund – just start one. Also in the news: Deciding on hiring a tax planner or DIY, how one couple paid off $100K in debt in 5 years, and the difference between hard and soft credit inquiries.

Don’t Freak Out About an Emergency Fund — Just Start One
The sooner, the better.

Hire a Tax Preparer or DIY? This Year the Decision May Be Harder
New tax laws may complicate things.

How I Ditched Debt: Side Jobs, Meal Planning and Faith
How one couple paid off $100K in 5 years.

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Credit Inquiries
How they impact your credit score.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to build your ‘Oh, Crap!’ fund. Also in the news: A strategy that could help new grads retire sooner, United Airlines sets a new pet transport policy, and what happens to your debts when you die.

How to Build Your ‘Oh, Crap!’ Fund
Don’t get caught empty-handed.

New Grads, This Strategy Could Mean Retiring Sooner
Doesn’t that sound nice?

United Airlines Sets New Pet Transport Policy
The policy will ban dozens of dog breeds from being transported in cargo.

What Happens to Your Debts When You Die
They don’t disappear.

How to build your ‘Oh, crap!’ fund

The emergency fund is a bust.

Millions of Americans don’t have one, and some of those who do resist tapping what they’ve saved. I’d like to propose an alternative for both sets of people: The “oh, crap!” fund, a savings account for not-quite-emergency expenses.

One of the reasons people don’t have emergency funds is misplaced optimism. People think that if they’re healthy, they’ll stay healthy. If they’re employed, ditto. The car will keep running, the roof will never need to be replaced and, since everybody’s a better-than-average driver, there won’t be any accidents. Behavioral scientists call that “recency bias,” which is the delusion that whatever happened in the recent past will continue into the indefinite future.

Everyone, though, has experienced “oh, crap!” moments: the no-parking sign they didn’t see, the crown the dentist says they need, the smartphone dropped in the toilet. In my latest for the Associated Press, how to build a fund that will take the sting out of emergency expenses.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Quick – Can you come up with $400? Also in the news: Is 4-year college right for you, car negotiating secrets for people who hate haggling, and 5myths about your 2017 tax refund and what not to do if you want to do if you want it quicker.

Quick — Can You Come Up With $400?
Most of America cannot.

Ask Brianna: Is 4-Year College Right for You?
Do you really need all 4 years?

Car Negotiating Secrets for People Who Hate Haggling
Negotiating without pressure.

5 myths about your 2017 tax refund and what not to do if you want it quicker
Calling the IRS won’t help.