What Is an Emergency Fund?

An emergency fund is an account for funds set aside in case of the event of a personal financial dilemma, such as the loss of a job, a debilitating illness, or a major repair to your home. The purpose of the fund is to improve financial security by creating a safety net of funds that can be used to meet emergency expenses as well as reduce the need to draw from high-interest debt options, such as credit cards or unsecured loans.

Understanding an Emergency Fund

 An emergency fund should contain enough money to cover at least three months of income, according to most financial planners. Note that financial institutions do not carry accounts labeled as emergency funds. Rather, the onus falls on an individual to set up this type of account and earmark it as capital reserved for personal financial crises.

Key Takeaways

  • An emergency fund is a financial security for future mishaps and/or unexpected expenses.
  • Financial planners recommend that emergency funds should typically have 3 to 6 months' worth of income in very liquid form so that it is instantly accessible.
  • Use tax refunds and other windfalls to build up your fund.

A married couple who earns $108,000 annually after taxes should set aside a readily accessible minimum of $27,000 (three months) to $54,000 (six months) to address unexpected financial surprises. The funds should be highly liquid, remaining in checking or savings accounts. These vehicles allow quick access to cash for satisfying household expenses during an emergency situation.

Emergency Funds and Investing

Financial advisers view an investment strategy as a pyramid. A strong base is fundamentally important to support the levels of risk an investor bears as securities with varying levels of volatility layer over the foundation. Before an individual ventures into intermediate- or long-term investment vehicles, the first step toward creating stability and minimizing risk should be establishing an emergency fund.

3 to 6 Months

The amount of your income you should stash in an emergency fund.

Stashing three—or even better, six—months’ income in a highly liquid account, such as a money market, should preclude the purchase of any instrument that holds risk to principal or requires lock-in periods during which penalties are assessed for early withdrawal. As more volatile securities sit atop above the base of savings accounts or Treasury bills, overall portfolio volatility is minimized and necessary access to risk-free capital is optimized.

Prudent advice should deter a new investor from immediately placing savings in an investment vehicle, such as a growth mutual fund, before that individual creates sufficient liquid capital on which to rely in the event of income loss. Growth funds, while less volatile than individual stocks, hold risk to principal that is best mitigated by increased time horizons. Furthermore, managed growth funds often charge a front-end sales load up to 5.75% or a contingent deferred sales charge (CDSC) against redemptions that would further impact principal needed in the event of an emergency.

Strategies to Set Up an Emergency Fund

Starting early is key to setting up an emergency fund because it helps you build up a comfortable cushion against unexpected emergencies (or mishaps) later in life. Getting a start on emergency funds is not complex. Here are two simple ways to begin saving for an emergency fund:

  • Set aside a comfortable amount from your salary each month. This amount should be calculated keeping an eventual goal for savings that will contribute to your fund. As you move up (or down) through your career, you can revise this figure. Once the fund is built up to the level you need, invest extra savings for the long term or for other goals, such as the down payment on a mortgage.
  • Save any tax refund you receive. The tendency for most of us is to consider a tax refund as "extra" cash, which can splurged on luxuries. Instead of spending the tax refund, save it as a contribution toward your emergency fund.