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Here’s What You Need to Know About Emergency Funds

By Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

One lasting effect of the coronavirus pandemic was to show us clearly how devastating it can be to suddenly lose income and not have savings. And even beyond a true economic crisis like losing your job, lesser financial emergencies also happen: your car breaks, you need to travel unexpectedly, your smartphone takes a bath. Those, too, can really throw you off track. So whether you think of it as an emergency fund, a rainy day account, a financial cushion, or an “uncertainty fund,” you need one. It’s one of the most important things you can do with your money. But exactly how much should you save into an emergency fund, and what do you do with that money? Here’s what you need to know.

An illustration of a lifebuoy made of money.

How much to save in your emergency fund

At Ellevest, we typically recommend that you set aside three to six months’ worth of your take-home pay for emergencies. That can feel like a really big number, especially if you’re starting from scratch. But you can build it gradually, and it’s worth the hard work.

We can almost hear you thinking it: “Three to six months is kind of a range. How much do I really need?” There are two things that come into play during that decision: how much uncertainty you might have to face and your personal comfort level.

The more uncertainty you’ve got in your financial life, the bigger you’re going to want your emergency fund to be. For example, if you’re a single parent and own a fixer-upper, you’re probably going to want to aim for closer to six months’ (or more) of your salary saved up. (Also, respect.) Or if you’ve been in a steady, salaried job for a while, share finances with someone (like a spouse), and have no dependents and no mortgage, three months is probably a good goal for you. (And if you’re self-employed, we actually recommend aiming to save up at least nine months’ worth to help float you through periods of fluctuating income.)

But maybe you’re in a stable, salaried job and share finances with someone in a stable, salaried job — and yet, three months doesn’t feel like enough security for you. In that case, save more. These are just guidelines, so do what feels best for you. (Just don’t keep all your money in cash. We typically recommend putting some aside to invest after you’ve hit your personal emergency fund goal — here’s why.)

Once you’re clear on your number, three things to help you get started saving up. First: Pay down high-interest-rate debt — anything more than 10% for sure — before you get started. (Waiting to pay that debt off can really cost you.) Second: Make a spending plan that works for your real life. That’s the best way to make sure you’re prioritizing your money goals. Third: Work your way up, and set mini-goals along the way. Maybe your first goal is $1,000, and then one month’s expenses, and then two, and then three.

Where to keep your emergency fund

This one’s a biggie: Keep your emergency fund in cash — not literally cash under the mattress, but in a bank account that you can access quickly and easily. One that’s insured by the FDIC (or the NCUA, if the bank is a credit union), meaning that your money’s protected by the government up to $250,000 if something were to happen to that bank. If you’re considering a money market account, note that those are different from money market funds, which are actually investments and not FDIC-insured. We also don’t recommend putting your emergency fund in a certificate of deposit (CD) or any other type of account that doesn’t let you make withdrawals whenever you want.

We designed Ellevest’s Save account to check all the boxes for your emergency fund, plus a few more. Your banking accounts at Ellevest are insured by the FDIC and accessible anytime. Your Ellevest Save account is also separate from your Ellevest Spend account. That can help you resist the urge to tap into your savings for non-emergencies — but it also means you can make a quick (and free) transfer between accounts whenever an emergency arises. You can also turn on Roundup, so that every time you swipe your debit card, the change goes into your emergency fund.

How to decide whether to use your emergency fund

Definitely an emergency: Anything unexpected that you absolutely must pay for. You lose your job. You have unexpected medical bills. Your water heater breaks. You have to travel to see a sick loved one.

Definitely not an emergency: Things you want but don’t really need, or things that you could save up for. Think last-minute vacation plans or your annual insurance premiums.

But there’s also a gray area, and that’s different for everyone — here’s our best advice to help you decide what is and isn’t an emergency for you.

Saving up three to six months’ take-home pay, in cash, for emergencies only, is one of the earliest steps you can make if you want to take control of your financial future. (Wondering about the others? We’ve got you. Here are smart money moves to make at every age.)


Disclosures

© 2020 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Banking products and services are provided by Coastal Community Bank (“Coastal”), member FDIC, pursuant to license by Mastercard International. Your Ellevest Save and Spend Account deposits will be insured to the regulatory limits by the FDIC.

Together, the Ellevest Save and Spend accounts are FDIC-insured up to $250,000 per depositor through Coastal Community Bank, Member FDIC.

Funds held in your Ellevest investment accounts are not FDIC insured, not guaranteed by Coastal, and may lose value. Ellevest does not guarantee investment performance. Investing entails risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no assurance that the investment will provide positive performance over any period of time.

If you opt in to the Roundup Program for debit card purchases, each settled (i.e. fully completed) purchase transaction made with your Ellevest Debit Card will be rounded up to the nearest whole U.S. dollar. The Roundup amount will be transferred from your Ellevest Spend account to your Ellevest Save account. Foreign purchases are rounded up to the nearest whole dollar after the purchase is converted to U.S. dollars. ATM withdrawals and transactions in whole US dollars, e.g. $20.00 are excluded from the Roundup program. If, at the time of settlement of a purchase, your Ellevest Spend Account has insufficient available funds to cover the full amount of the Roundup transfer, the Roundup Transfer will not be made. If a purchase is canceled or reversed for any reason (including disputes), the corresponding Roundup Transfer will not be reversed. You can opt out of the Roundup Program at any time.

The information provided should not be relied upon as investment advice or recommendations, does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities and should not be considered specific legal, investment or tax advice.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific person.

Investing entails risk including the possible loss of principal and there is no assurance that the investment will provide positive performance over any period of time.

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Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

Rachel Sanborn is the Director of Advisory Services at Ellevest and a CFP® Professional. She oversees Ellevest’s coaching teams and works with Ellevest members to help them be the boss of their money.