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Six Things to Consider About an Emergency Fund

No doubt you've probably heard before about how important it is for you to have an emergency fund. Without an adequate one, you might be forced to take on high-interest debt, sell investments in a down market, or pay taxes and penalties on an early retirement fund distribution. Here are six things to consider when creating the right emergency fund for your specific situation.

1. An Emergency Fund Gives You Opportunities

An emergency fund allows you to not only play defense, but it can be a helpful tool in taking calculated risks that can help you achieve your goals. With an emergency fund in place, you’re in a more comfortable position to follow your passion and start a business, or move across the country to take on a job that’s a better fit.

Our experience has been that those who maximize their long-term strategic opportunities create the most wealth over time, and an emergency fund plays a huge role in this.

2. Understand the Opportunity Cost

The flip side of an emergency fund is the opportunity cost of holding such a large amount of your money in low yielding investments. While bank checking and savings account rates are trending higher, every dollar sitting in an emergency fund earning 1% is a dollar that is not available to earn a long-term expected return of 6% to 8%. That differential can really add up over time.

The emergency likely won't even outpace inflation, so it's essentially losing money. Additionally, if you're prioritizing contributing to your emergency fund over tax-advantaged accounts like an IRA or 401(k), you'll be missing out on the opportunity cost tax savings. Moreover, bank interest is taxed at ordinary income rates, which can be higher than the capital gains rates you’ll earn in the stock market.

The more you hold in cash, the harder incrementally it becomes to achieve your goals. For example, it would take saving $2,000 a month for a 32-year-old to sustain a lifestyle of $100,000 of annual expenses in retirement with a cash cushion of $100,000, but she would only need to save $1,500 a month with a cash cushion of $20,000, assuming 3% inflation.

An emergency fund functions as a type of insurance, and you should find a balance between minimizing the opportunity cost of the emergency fund and maximizing your protection in case of an emergency.

3. Determine the Right Amount

A rule of thumb that gets thrown around by many financial planners is to have an emergency fund of two to six months of expenses, but there's no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to emergency funds. Either way, you'll need to understand what your expenses are and pull together a budget.

The size of your emergency fund is highly dependent on how variable your income is and how marketable your skills are in the open job market. A real estate broker that does several transactions a year might want to have four or five months in his or her emergency fund given how his or her income can be so variable and how dependent it is on the strength of the economy.

On the other hand, a partner at a large New York City law firm with steadier, more predictable income or a UX designer with many inbound job offers might be able to get away with two months of savings. It’s best to think about different scenarios before determining an amount: "How much cash would I need if I were out of work for three or six months?"  "What if my spouse lost their job?"

4. Customize Your Emergency Fund

It’s also important to consider your personal circumstances when thinking through an emergency fund. The more responsibilities and dependents you have, the higher the consequences of a change in your circumstances.

A two-income family with no kids and no mortgage might only need two months of cushion, while they would need a larger amount if they had kids and one of the parents left the workforce. Families with siblings, parents or grandparents that lean on them financially from time to time might also have to think about a larger emergency fund.

5. Where It Should Be Kept

While the ideal place to park your emergency funds will change over time depending on market conditions, the usual suspects are bank savings accounts, bank checking accounts, very short-term CDs, U.S. Treasury Bills, and money market funds. The important thing is you have easy access to the funds, the funds earn interest and the funds are invested in non-risky vehicles.

6. When You Might Not Need One

At some point, you may not need much of an emergency fund. For example, if you’ve already reached financial freedom with a large investment portfolio over 20 times your expenses, a home with no mortgage, and several sources of steady income, there isn’t much need for an emergency fund since you could always use a home equity line or sell a portion of your portfolio. If you’ve done your financial planning correctly for a long period of time, you can self-insure against an emergency at some point.

It’s best to be practical and not too dogmatic about your emergency fund. For example, it’s rarely a bad idea to raid the emergency fund to make a modest contribution to a tax-advantaged Roth IRA, especially since distributions from Roth IRAs after five years are without penalty.

If done right, emergency funds can help you sleep more soundly at night knowing that you’ll be alright if there is an unfortunate turn in your life. With one in place, you’ll more confidently make progress toward your financial goals.

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