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Updated on Tuesday, September 26, 2017
In 2012, Heather Vernillo, then 33, learned she had kidney cancer. The Tampa-area nurse had emergency surgery days later. While her health insurance covered 100 percent of her care, the experience left her unable to work for 15 weeks. This translated to more than four months of missed income, plus a $1,100 monthly bill for COBRA, which kept her health coverage intact during her involuntary hiatus.
Vernillo’s emergency fund turned out to be her saving grace through an ordeal that cost her roughly $7,000.
“The situation pretty much wiped out my savings, but it was worth every penny,” she told MagnifyMoney.
Vernillo’s experience underscores the vital importance of keeping a cash reserve on hand. Still, two-thirds of Americans would struggle to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to a 2016 poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Vernillo is no millionaire. As a nurse, her annual income fluctuated between $95,000 and $50,000 before her diagnosis. (She took a pay cut when she moved from New Jersey to Florida in 2012.) Nonetheless, she says her approach to building her rainy day fund was simple: She set up automatic monthly withdrawals from her checking account to her emergency fund, treating it like any other line item on her budget. It took about two years to build up a fund sufficient enough to cover the expenses she incurred during her medical crisis.
Now, she is focused on rebuilding her fund. This wasn’t always financially easy, she admits, but after her health scare, it was a top priority.
“I’ve been able to partially replenish [my savings] and currently have about two months’ worth of expenses tucked away, just in case,” she says.
Choosing your best worst option
When people don’t have cash on hand for emergencies, they’re more likely to turn to alternative borrowing methods that could wind up costing them much more down the road. (Hello, payday loans.) Sometimes, it can feel like a painful choice from an array of bad options.
If you’ve exhausted all your best options for cash — you’ve emptied your bank account and asked friends and family for loans — then it’s time to look at your next best alternative. And at this point, it’s about choosing the option that will cost you less in the long run.
If you’re overwhelmed with medical bills, for example, ask the doctor or hospital to put you on a payment plan. Or consider a personal loan or a low-interest credit card — whichever option carries the lowest APR. Check out our ranking of the 10 best options for cash when you need it fast.
“If you don’t have any other options, then using a credit card or personal loan to pay for an emergency is better than defaulting on a bill, which can negatively impact your credit score,” Natalie Colley, a financial analyst with Francis Financial, tells MagnifyMoney. “You’ll pay more in the long run with interest, and ultimately you’re setting yourself up for financial instability and getting caught in a debt cycle.”
The key is to use these methods as a last resort and create a plan to pay down the debt as soon as possible.
Thanks to consistent monthly contributions, Marvin Fontanilla, a 35-year-old marketing professional in San Jose, had $8,000 tucked away in his emergency fund. It was enough to cover three months’ worth of expenses, and it came in handy back in August, when the battery on his hybrid car called it quits. A replacement cost $2,200, and an additional $622 for a rental car to use during the repair.
“It didn’t make a huge dent in our savings because my fiancee and I live way below our means,” Fontanilla says. “We’ve actually already replenished it by taking money we normally use to make aggressive student loan payments and redirecting it back into our savings account.”
While we certainly can’t anticipate every financial emergency that lies ahead, he adds that the death of his car battery didn’t come completely out of the blue; he knew when he bought a hybrid that the battery would likely have to be replaced once he hit 200,000 miles, so the expense was already in the back of his mind.
How much should you save?
Just as there’s no way Vernillo could have predicted her cancer, it’s impossible for any of us to really know what financial twists and turns are in our future.
“We can plan until we’re blue in the face for what lies ahead financially, but no matter how great our planning is, emergencies happen,” says Colley.
She tells her clients to live by a basic rule of thumb for savings: Save for at least three to six months’ worth of expenses.
“That’s a large number, and it’s going to take years to get there, but the important thing is to establish the habit of putting money aside every month and having it automatically transferred from your checking account to your savings account,” she says.
How much you contribute each month depends on a number of factors, not the least of which are income and expenses. After accounting for fixed bills and variable expenses like food and entertainment, what’s left should be divvied up between your financial goals. If your emergency fund is at zero, Colley suggests starting small and focusing solely on the first $1,000; a safe cushion in case of a minor setback.
Once you hit that milestone, you can begin redirecting some money toward other financial goals (like paying off high-interest debt, dialing up your retirement contributions or saving for a down payment on a home) while continuing to build your emergency fund. Everyone’s goals are different, but the main takeaway here is that it isn’t an either/or situation. Rather, it’s all about saving for multiple goals at once.
Where to stash your savings
Where you keep your emergency fund matters. Colley likes the idea of keeping it at a bank that’s separate from a regular checking account. (Out of sight, out of mind.) She recommends going with an online, high-yield account, like Capital One 360, Ally or Synchrony. While a traditional savings account at your local bank will likely only pay 0.01 percent, these online accounts dole out 1.20 percent with no minimum balance requirement.
Another plus is that it typically takes three days to transfer money into your checking account, which reduces the likelihood of impulsive withdrawals. The idea is to build an emergency fund that’s liquid, but not so liquid that you’ll be tempted to dip into it when the mood strikes.
For smaller pop-up expenses that leave you needing cash on the spot — a flat tire or overdraft protection, for example — Colley says it’s not a bad idea to keep a few hundred dollars in a traditional savings account that can be tapped immediately.
“Having a fully funded emergency savings doesn’t happen overnight, and it also shouldn’t be your one and only focus,” Colley says. “If you do that, all your other goals will come to a grinding halt while you build your savings account.”