How Big Should Your Emergency Fund Be?

Having an emergency fund is essential to a successful financial plan. You won’t truly understand how important it is to your financial health until the day comes when you absolutely need it. So, how much do you actually need in your emergency fund?

Rule of Thumb

The basic rule of thumb has been 6 months of take home pay or 6 months basic living expenses. However, the problem with rules of thumb is that they don’t take into account the nuances of people’s lives. The size of your fund will depend on your personal situation and financial needs. Figuring this out is more art than science.

When I work with a client I actually do use a general rule of thumb as a starting point to determine how much they should have. I try to figure out if they should save 3, 6, 9, or 12 months basic living expenses or 3, 6, 9 or 12 months take home pay. What’s the difference? Well, for one thing saving for basic expenses may be a lot easier than saving for take home pay. However, saving only for basic expenses could mean a lifestyle change when you need to start tapping that fund. Whether you can make those changes is an important question you’ll need to ask yourself when building your fund.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Take some time to think about the list of questions below. The answers to these questions will help you figure out what your emergency fund goal should be:

  • How much do you take home in your paycheck every month?
  • What are your basic monthly expenses (i.e. groceries, mortgage, car payment, insurance, utilities, etc.)?
  • What are your extras every month (i.e. shopping, entertainment, dining, vacations, children’s activities, etc.)?
  • How much are your insurance deductibles?
  • Are you married or single?
  • Do you have anyone you are financially responsible for?
  • How secure is your job?
  • If you lost your job how difficult would it be to replace your income?
  • How long would it take for you to get another job?
  • Are you retired?

Now let’s take a look at my more broad rules of thumb and who they might be good for. Keep in mind, the examples I use below to illustrate a hypothetical emergency fund assume saving for basic living expenses. You will need to increase that amount if you want to save for take home pay.

The 3 Month Fund

In my opinion, this is the bare bones amount anyone should have in their emergency fund. When you are just starting to build a fund your goal should be to set aside 3 months of basic monthly expenses.

Who is this good for?

  • Anyone just starting to build an emergency fund (Having a small fund is better than having no fund at all!)
  • Someone in the early stages of their career
  • Someone who does not have any dependants or still lives at home

Example:

  • Monthly take home pay = $3,000
  • Monthly living expenses = $2,500
  • Emergency fund = $7,500

The 6 Month Fund

Once you’ve started to make some money and have responsibilities like auto payments, rent, student loans, etc. this should be your goal.

Who is this good for?

  • Anyone with financial responsibilities
  • A married couple with no children
  • Someone who many not have a mortgage

Example:

  • Monthly take home pay = $5,000
  • Monthly living expenses = $4,000
  • Emergency fund = $24,000

The 9 Month Fund

At this point in your financial life, you may be married, have children and have a mortgage. You have accumulated a good deal of financial responsibilities and a disruption in income will cause a significant lifestyle change.

Who is this good for?

  • Someone with a mortgage
  • A couple who have similar salaries
  • A married couple with children
  • Someone who feels they can land another job within 6 months of losing their current job

Example:

  • Monthly take home pay = $7,500
  • Monthly living expenses = $5,000
  • Emergency fund = $45,000

The 12 Month Fund

When your financial situation gets more complicated and your financial responsibilities have grown, you may need to consider this larger emergency fund.

Who is this good for?

  • A married couple with unequal incomes
  • Someone with a mortgage
  • Someone who is concerned it will take awhile to replace their income if they lost their job
  • A married couple with children
  • Someone who is fairly risk averse and knows they will sleep better at night if they have a large emergency fund

Example:

  • Monthly take home pay = $10,000
  • Monthly living expenses = $8,000
  • Emergency fund = $96,000

Bonus: The 24 Month Fund

This fund is reserved specifically for retirees. It covers a much longer time frame because the emergency fund serves a different function during retirement than it does during your working years. If you are taking systematic withdrawals from your investment accounts to fund your retirement, you should have at least 24 months of basic living expenses set aside to use during market downturns. This money should be in safe and highly liquid investments like CD’s or treasuries.

Who is this good for?

  • Retirees taking systematic withdrawals from investment accounts
  • Retirees not wanting to make lifestyle changes during market downturns
  • Retirees not wanting to reduce their withdrawals during market downturns

Example

  • Monthly withdrawal from investments = $2,000
  • Emergency fund = $48,000

5 Important Things to Remember

  1. Never invest your emergency fund in equities
  2. Always keep the money for your emergency fund in safe, highly liquid investments like CDs or treasuries
  3. If you deplete your fund, make it a priority to build it back up
  4. To assist in building your emergency fund, set up a separate, designated savings account and have automatic transfers deposited into that account
  5. Avoid using a line of credit as your emergency fund

As you have seen, there is no one right way to build an emergency fund. I’ve illustrated what I believe to be a prudent approach and provided a sample of possible solutions. As such, I tend to be fairly conservative and risk averse in my recommendations as far as emergency funds are concerned. To determine your ideal emergency fund, I encourage you to honestly answer the questions above and closely examine your personal financial situation. What is good for you may not be the same as what is good for someone else.

For more financial planning tips download my free report: 8 Steps to Organize & Optimize Your Financial Life. It’s packed with helpful advice, useful tips and valuable resources.

To learn what I can do for you visit www.weiss-financial.com.

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