The Emergency Fund: Borrowing from Yourself Instead of the Bank

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By Leith Guth, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, FCS Agent, Lincoln County

On the day my husband and I moved out of state for his graduate school, a passing truck threw a rock into our windshield and cracked it.  Thus began our love hate relationship with that car and a brilliant illustration on why everyone needs an emergency fund.

An emergency fund is an accessible account where money is saved for an emergency.   Ideally, an emergency fund would be in a savings vehicle that is earning some interest.   In the past, experts advised one to put enough money to cover three months of expenses into an emergency account.  Today, with unemployment more prevalent and most job searches taking up to six months, advisors suggest having emergency funds to cover six months of expenses.    Emergency funds are for unplanned expenses like car repairs, unemployment, illness or exploding washing machines.  Christmas comes at the same time each year and does not qualify as an emergency!  With an emergency fund, one can pay for unexpected expenses from that fund balance without taking out a loan or incurring credit card debt.  Instead of paying  principal and interest on a loan back to a creditor, one pays the money back to her emergency fund.  One should be able to access her emergency funds within one or two days.  It is not wise for the emergency fund to be accessible by ATM or to serve as the overdraft for a checking account; easy access to these emergency funds can make them disappear easily if you get the spending bug.

Our graduate school car saga demonstrates why I needed an emergency fund.  In those days, we used a credit card as our emergency fund.  In our haste to pay off the credit card, we would pay too much on our credit card, depleting our cash on hand.  Then, another emergency expense would occur, a trip home for a funeral for example.  With no emergency fund and little cash on hand, we would charge tickets on our credit card; it was a vicious circle where interest charges mounted.  With a proper emergency fund of even $500, we would have paid for our car repair from our fund without incurring interest charges.  Then, we would pay back our emergency fund instead of the credit card company.

Nationally known financial gurus insist that everyone make an emergency account a priority in their financial life, before other savings or investments.  Even a small monthly amount deposited into an accessible account that earns interest is a step in the right direction.

National Competencies: Saving, Borrowing

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