how much emergency fund is enough?

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The term “emergency fund” is misleading.  Is a new tire for the car an emergency?  Is a new TV, when your last good one dies?  Most of us have a good idea what an emergency means when we consider the extreme case:  a sick child, a roof with a gigantic hole allowing the rain to come in, a car that won’t start.  When you get to the more “iffy” emergencies it gets a bit tougher.  Is it an emergency when you need a new dryer?  I mean, you COULD hang clothes out to dry for a while.

I’ve read many times that you should have $1000 in an emergency fund, or that you should establish a three month or six month or eight month emergency fund before investing. Should you start thinking about Roths versus traditional IRAs as soon as you have $1000 in an emergency fund?  Should you even be thinking about paying down your credit card debt that quickly?

We just went through seven months of a “zero-income” household, although we did have a few sources of alternative income.  Neither my wife nor I were working jobs or earning money in our fields, and although we had to tighten our belts to a small extent, we were able to live more or less normally the entire time.  Why?  Because we had an enormous “emergency fund”, equal to more than a year of expenses.

I know there are people who can live on the razor’s edge, dancing around on margin and leveraging their next income-generating venture. If you’re that type of person, more power to you.  I’m not.  I’ve been able to rest easy and take my “mini-retirement” thanks to saving whenever we could in our emergency fund.  It’s a lifestyle choice, but I’d argue that if you’re the type of person who gets nervous when the money runs out, you’re better off having an adequate stash laid by when times are good.  When times are bad, you won’t be sorry you have enough – or even more than enough – saved up.

The argument against this might be that you can’t build wealth by keeping your money in cash (or “almost cash”). You need to put that money to work.  True – but nothing is more of an impediment to building wealth than hitting a hard patch that causes you to go back into debt.  In this economy it can happen quickly, and the length of time without income can be extensive.  Nothing would derail your future prosperity worse than going into debt during a sudden but protracted unemployment.

So think twice before accepting the idea that a three-month or six-month emergency fund is enough. It’s never really enough. I’d love to have a three or four YEAR emergency fund.  Cash in the bank is, well, cash in the bank.

photo by Paul Keleher